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comics of note

It's almost a shame that Jessica Abel's La Perdida—a Fantagraphics serial now collected in a hefty complete edition by Pantheon—eventually develops a plot. Abel's fine portrait of a naïve Mexican-American looking for her roots across the border is a leisurely, literary tale of conversation and conversion, of someone desperately straining to fit in without really understanding what she's fitting into or why. Abel captures a fascinating and exquisitely realized social microcosm, illustrating it in a simple but multifaceted black-and-white style that recalls a more open, breathable version of Craig Thompson's work. And her often-unsympathetic protagonist is flawed enough to seem thoroughly real, even when she falls into a drama that seems a little too pat. La Perdida is as layered, well-realized, and vivid as an autobiography, but without the lingering taint of self-absorption… A

Sure, the name is off-putting, but Mom's Cancer (Abrams) does everything it can to ease readers into its difficult subject. Creator Brian Fies began it as an online comic addressing his mother's lung cancer, and he writes and draws in a newspaper-comics-friendly style that's inviting to look at and easy to read, but does nothing to soft-sell his family's difficulties. He began it not knowing how it would end, but in collected form, it coheres nicely into a moving story about saying "no" to death even when the odds appear impossible… A-

Gag comics don't get much more gag-inducing than the hilariously gross one-panel jokes in Johnny Ryan's essential Angry Youth Comix #10 (Fantagraphics). Ryan's puerile genius can be summed up in two of his best punchlines: "Check out the size of the tits on that concentration camp!" and "I can't believe a shitting jar of piss just won the Miss America pageant!," both of which are four times as funny when illustrated… A

For those who prefer slightly more elevated absurdity, Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed To Thrizzle #2 (Fantagraphics) offers twisted homages to kiddie comics and clip-art, recombined into pop-and-go short stories that make the whole medium seem inherently silly. Like Johnny Ryan's work, Kupperman's comics are the kind of intentionally disposable fare that often outlasts the more serious stuff—and certainly gets passed around a lot more… A-

 French cartoonist Jason makes his own foray into blackout gags with the prestige-format collection Meow, Baby! (Fantagraphics), which throws together a bunch of mostly wordless one-or-two-pagers about the mundane adventures of mummies, werewolves, vampires, zombies, cavemen, spacemen, skeletons, Elvis, Godzilla, The Terminator, and the cast of Pulp Fiction. It's a purely whimsical exercise, but the comic rhythms are impeccably timed, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and always charming… A-

Then there's Ivan Brunetti's masterful deconstruction of gag cartooning, Schizo #4 (Fantagraphics), which presents a series of oversized one-page strips that pull layered duty as a diary of Brunetti's life from 1999 to 2005, a meditation on the historical hellishness of being an artist, and an appreciation of what it takes to communicate via scribbles on paper. Brunetti employs multiple styles and tones, taking chances that pay off in ways small and large, as he spills his whole reason for being into a structurally complex argument for art. If he never picks up a pen again, this book will be his legacy… A

Of all the young cartoonists in the latest alternative wave, Kevin Huizenga has arguably been the most lauded, though even in his praised-to-the-skies new book Ganges #1 (Fantagraphics/Cococino), he just shows the potential for greatness, not the actual stuff. His digressive study of a typically anxious young married couple has a touching ending, and a couple of bravura sequences where he plays with pages in formally innovative ways, but the ruminations on the trials of middle-class existence aren't especially deep, and the storytelling tends to be either oblique or underdeveloped. Huizenga can draw, but at the moment he seems to applying thick layers of art to the sort of slice-of-life material that Peter Bagge and Terry LaBan made much looser and funnier a decade ago… B

If Huizenga has a rival for the mantle of art-comics hero, it's Sammy Harkham, the L.A. DIY champion whose anthology Kramers Ergot has given the new movement a home. Harkham's new solo book Crickets #1 (Drawn & Quarterly) starts off with a lengthy sequence of a man running through the woods that's pretty much par for the course as far as crudely drawn, hard-to-follow modern art-comics go; but the second half improves greatly when the man (and his golem) meet a father and son traveling on a morbid mission. What happens next is blackly comic and genuinely shocking, and though Crickets may never live up to its first-issue climax, Harkham at least appears to know what he's doing… B+

The Winter 2006 edition of Fantagraphics' own version of Kramers Ergot, Mome continues to stagger the incomprehensible with the entertaining, though aside from David Heatley's increasingly unbearable "Overpeck" serial, most of the new Mome falls more on the good side. Two can't-miss standouts: Jonathan Bennett's "Roll Of Film," which cleverly examines the true sentimental value of snapshots, and Kurt Wolfgang's "Odd Petal Out," which perfectly weaves the tangled web of teenage boy/girl friendships… B

The young bucks in the '70s Marvel Comics mill tried their damnedest to bring a little of the era's cultural revolution into their four-color pamphlets, with results that ranged from ridiculous to sublime. The former category includes Captain America And The Falcon: Secret Empire (Marvel), in which the good Captain gets framed for murder and goes on a cross-country trip with his jive-talking partner, looking to uncover a conspiracy that leads all the way to the White House. The book is undeniably entertaining, albeit mainly for its strained earnestness and its connection to the current storyline in Kurt Busiek's multi-layered genre analysis Astro City, which uses the "Secret Empire" storyline as a metaphor for malaise… B-

Slightly more artful—albeit clunkily pretentious—is Omega The Unknown: Classic (Marvel), which collects all 10 issues (plus outside appearances) of Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' metaphysical superhero Omega, an alien who learns about humanity in Hell's Kitchen, with the help of two sexy gals and a boy raised by robots. In combining gritty ghetto vignettes with sprawling science fiction, the series' reach exceeds its grasp, but Gerber and Skrenes show admirable patience in developing a complicated narrative, and their street scenes have more authenticity than the average "relevant" '70s adventure comic… B

Realism isn't as big a factor in the stories collected in The Essential Moon Knight (Marvel), though writer Doug Moench certainly aims for a kind of mature, pulpy self-awareness, riffing on Batman, spy thrillers, film noir, kung-fu flicks, and old Saturday-matinee serials, all in splashy stories about a playboy adventurer with multiple personalities. The concept really hits its stride when Moench hooks up with young penciler Bill Sienkiewicz, still in his Neil Adams-worship phase and not yet as recklessly experimental as he would later get on New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin. Sienkiewicz makes the characters flow across the page, in a sketchy style that—like the art of his contemporary Frank Miller—is more subversive than anything in the word balloons… B+

Ed Brubaker is already turning in a stellar run on Captain America, but his Marvel work seems designed to let him challenge Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns for the title of comics' hardest-working writer. Not that anyone's complaining. Brubaker brings admirable thought and depth to his projects, even those that initially seem outside his crime-in-the-streets/espionage comfort zone. The in-progress Books Of Doom miniseries retells the origin of the Fantastic Four's greatest foe, while X-Men: Deadly Genesis fills in some of the blanks in the X-Men chronology. Both are good reads, even though they haven't revealed a reason to exist, beyond telling a solid, self-contained story… B

On the other hand, Brubaker's first Daredevil issue hits the ground running, picking up where Bendis' run left off—with its hero in prison—and somehow heaping on the misery… A-


Like so much woman-branded material, Dark Horse's black-and-white anthology Sexy Chix (Ugh, ugh, ugh.) is a little too focused on conventional "female topics"—romance, abortion, heartbreak, childbirth, beauty, etc. The who's-who of female contributors (Colleen Doran, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory, Jill Thompson, Chynna Clugston, and more) showcase some terrific art and writing, but the few entries that leave the predictable girl-story path—Carla Speed McNeil's gory, dynamic, hilarious faith-healer romp, for instance—really stand out… B+

Dark Horse's all-male emerging-artists anthology New Recruits covers a much wider gamut of styles and stories, from zombie horror to Victorian mystery to modern madness. The art isn't as finely tuned, many of the creators are still finding their narrative voices, and the most accomplished entry, Andrew Krahnke's "Zombiekiller," is a disappointingly opaque snippet with a to-be-continued end. But for newbies, they're mostly accomplished and worth watching for in the future… C+

While more than a little random and rambly, Ethan Young's self-published miniseries Tails is still an impressive debut. Young's story follows a frustrated animal activist taking care of 15 cats while living with his parents in a run-down NYC Chinatown apartment, but it runs off in various directions, from superhero-comics parody to funny-animal comedy to emo drama, as though Young is experimenting with style and has a lot to get off his chest. But while he seems to be learning as he's going, he knows a lot about pacing, composition, and characterization already, and at its best, Tails is simultaneously funny and tender. Hopefully the third and final issue will actually see the light of day. B