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G.I. Joe: Deviations makes Cobra Commander’s victory a laughing matter

Also reviewed: Princess Jellyfish, Mini kuš!, and Carpet Sweeper Tales

This past March, IDW released a series of “Deviations” one-shots for assorted licensed comics, offering What If?-style stories detailing how these characters’ lives would change if one key element was altered. What if the Ghostbusters never crossed streams in their fight against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man? What if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles joined Shredder? What if Fox Mulder was abducted by aliens instead of his sister? G.I. Joe: Deviations (IDW) asks a simple question—what if Cobra Commander succeeded in taking over the world?—but writer Paul Allor and artist Corey Lewis do exceptional things with the answer, using the new circumstances as a launch pad for a delightfully off-beat take on the property.

G.I. Joe: Deviations is rooted in humor, focusing on Cobra Commander’s dissatisfaction with the responsibilities of being in charge of the world, which means lots of boring meetings discussing market stability and infrastructure maintenance. Baroness (now married to Destro with two small children) pays little attention to Cobra Commander’s evil pitches to disable all cell phones and tablets or weaponize the ocean’s fish, so he plots to bring chaos back to his organization with the help of his old enemies, the surviving members of G.I. Joes. Allor and Lewis establish that this is going to be an irreverent interpretation of this world from the very first moment, and Roadblock saving a young boy from choking on a hot dog sets a goofy tone that is maintained throughout.

Lewis is an especially good fit for this book because there’s an inherent lightness and humor in his art, and his sharp timing makes all the jokes land harder. He amplifies the comedic elements of the script with his cartoonishly exaggerated artwork, blending the expressive characterizations and dynamic action of manga with the bold composition and vibrant color palette of graffiti to give the book a distinct visual style that is very different from the G.I. Joe norm. The book may prioritize humor, but that graffiti influence helps bring extra drama to the story with striking single panels that evoke very specific moods.

This is a great-looking book, showcasing the value of bringing on an artist with a more idiosyncratic style to reimagine familiar characters. Combine Lewis’ art with Allor’s clever script and the end result is one of the most exciting licensed comics published in recent memory, overflowing with personality and creative passion. This humorous take on G.I. Joe is so engaging that it could easily be expanded into a longer miniseries, and it would be a lot of fun to see Allor and Lewis continue to explore a sillier side of the Real American Heroes in a longer project. [Oliver Sava]

With 15 volumes of manga already published in Japanese, Princess Jellyfish has also enjoyed success as anime in both Japan and the U.S. thanks in part to being available on Netflix. Nearly a decade later, an official English translation of the manga is available. That built-in fan base from Netflix may well prove the push that Princess Jellyfish Volume 1 (Kodansha Comics) needs to become a success here.

Both written and drawn by Akiko Higashimura, Princess Jellyfish stars a young woman named Tsukimi Kurashita who is living in an apartment building full of other single women. Calling themselves “nuns,” each takes her interests to an obsessive level that marks her as a less-than-ideal potential mate. Into their quiet, isolated lives tumbles a boisterous personality, the opposite of Tsukimi and her roommates in nearly every way. Kuranosuke Koibuchi is fashionable and popular, finding it easy to be social and demand both attention and respect. Kuranosuke uses Tsukimi and her “nunnery” to run away from problems, trying to push the roommates toward standing up for themselves and, by extension, standing up for people who are just too weird to fit in. Though the story is rife with culturally specific references, there is a key in the back of the book and occasional footnotes on the page explaining nearly all of them. The publisher has taken the time to translate terms and also acknowledging linguistic changes that have happened in the last few years.

Higashimura’s art skews far closer to manga standard than Western styles, unsurprisingly. The book is published in black and white, reading right to left. Many of the characters will feel familiar to manga and anime fans, both in personality type and visual design. Higashimura’s strengths lie in conveying emotions and the fact that her female characters have far more diverse appearances than most manga offers. Physicality and body language plays an important role in nearly every panel, and it’s refreshing to see a book that not only embraces the multitude of different interests and personalities women have, but also bodies. Even in black and white, panels are full of detail that reveal a lot about the characters’ personalities and the lives they lead.

Like a lot of manga and anime, Princess Jellyfish plays with gender norms more comfortably than most Western media. This is absolutely a romance manga, but the ways in which it embraces less-than-“ideal” women and men who are equally ill-suited to public life is refreshing and comforting. A love triangle develops early on, but it pushes at the heteronormative ties that bind similar stories, embracing some tropes while undermining and outright rejecting others. Perhaps the best selling point to casual fans of the show is that Higashimura has added two sections to the book, part of a serialized autobiographical comic about her own obsessions and crushes as a young woman. It’s charming and sweet, nostalgic without excusing just how creepy teenage girls can be about the things they like. As a love letter to young women and their loves, Princess Jellyfish is well worth the read, even to those who know the story well already. [Caitlin Rosberg]

As confounding as it is brief, Mini kuš! #41 (Kuš!) playfully challenges readers to embrace a more poetical form of comics. In the 41st issue of the series, an ongoing anthology of self-contained stories, the German cartoonist Aisha Franz authors “EYEZ,” the wordless story of a nouveau riche—possibly a tech mogul or an in-vogue celebrity—pursued by a silent drone that photographs the young man sunbathing in the nude. This drone pursues him throughout his futuristic home and forces him to shed crucial identifying aspects of himself—the thematic crux of the book.

Franz’s aesthetic is like a Johnny Ryan sans provocation, and her figures are long-limbed and lithe. She leaves her surfaces clean, recalling the mid-century ligne claire of Hergé, and the flat opacity of her colors underscores the uncannily smooth texture of her images. There are no pores, no imperfections, like her protagonist is wearing a human suit. Franz’s figures are all artifice, two-dimensional and stilted, like Brechtian performers reminding you of your mediated relationship. The result is a visual aporia—an aesthetic at once nakedly simple and maddeningly obscurantist.

Only 28 pages in length, “EYEZ” serves as perfect vehicle for Franz’s visual lexicon, and the book’s ending is similarly perplexing. The young man sheds his skin—dragging a zipper down his back and literally opening himself up to the world—only to reveal that he is a woman. Was she a woman the whole time? Or is this a transformative scene, rather than a revelatory one? She observes herself in a mirror before descending even deeper into the bowels of a Ballardian apartment building, appearing to shed her physical form with the aid of what appear to be VR goggles. The poetical narrative, which follows this figure as they briefly traverse their home, themselves, and maybe reality to avoid surveillant detection, is so simple in its depictions. Like Franz’s rendering of line and color, what we’re seeing is obvious and articulable; but the images are chained together, linked forever in a tacit relationship, urging the reader to derive or ascribe some meaning. Even the cover, the striking image designed to entice and to sell, requires attentive interrogation. A figure—rendered in a seemingly more abstracted style than the character in the book—peers through blinds at an obscured symphony of red globules. This figure is staring out at the reader, objectifying us, turning us into the abjectly private protagonist of “EYEZ.” Beyond the cover, the reader necessarily becomes a voyeur to the proceedings, so Franz’s enticing cover isn’t a beginning, or, at least, not the beginning of the narrative. Is it then a summarizing image or a reflexive one? Is it a prelude designed to primes us, situating us within a watched-watcher dialectic?

It’s unclear how Franz intends “EYEZ” to be read: as a conciliatory silver lining to the post-privacy epoch or as repudiation of it. Regardless, the work is one of challenging beauty and staggering simplicity. It values humanity, and at its core is a paen to, above all else, know yourself. [Shea Hennum]

Although Carpet Sweeper Tales (Drawn & Quarterly) is the new book from Julie Doucet, it is not a book of cartoons. Doucet was one of the great cartooning talents of her generation, but she has not drawn a comic in over 10 years. So those hoping to see Doucet return once again to cartooning will more than likely find themselves puzzled by Carpet Sweeper Tales.

What is it, then? That’s not an easy question to answer. The most obvious answer is that the book represents a hybrid of collage and fumetti. (Fumetti is an Italian word for comics, but is mostly used in English to indicate a comic strip constructed out of photos—something seen more frequently in Europe but not unknown in North America.) Doucet began with a pile of old magazines—specifically, Italian fumetti from the 1960s and ’70s, combined with a selection of older American magazines. The stories in Carpet Sweeper Tales begin with the fumetti pieces as their foundation, on which she pastes English words and letters cut from the American magazines. She also insists that the book be read aloud, a request that makes more sense when the reader sees that the vast majority of the text is, for lack of a better word, gibberish. What sense the words have comes from their sound, not their meaning.

The “stories,” such as they are, are simple affairs, legible even without the benefit of language. The fumetti on which the book is constructed appear to be mostly romantic, although the end of the book is occupied with a group of ’60s bikers out for some roughhousing. Photo comics face a tough climb for any number of reasons, not least the difficulty of conveying the illusion of motion with obviously staged pictures. (This is, incidentally, also a challenge for cartoonists who rely too heavily on photo reference.) Whomever the creators of the original fumetti were (sadly, no credits have been included besides the names of the original magazines), they did a good job with the format. The story scans well even without dialogue. This is necessary when the characters start saying things like, “Because be ba naly ap hoa wa wo ca coo spinc ra ori coa be ney.”

Rather than a triumphant return, Carpet Sweeper Tales is a puzzling curio. It’s consistently interesting, at least. The words put in the characters’ mouths may not make any sense (mostly), but placing them over the context of banal soap opera makes them seem like they make sense. Truthfully, the effect is little different from reading any untranslated comic, the only difference being that the reader is taking it on faith that the words in an untranslated manga or bande dessinée are real words and not also gibberish. The book actually works a little better when the words are complete nonsense. Although the phrase “experimental” gets thrown around a lot, Carpet Sweeper Tales really does seem to fit the bill. It’s an odd book based around a singular premise that even devoted Doucet fans might struggle to enjoy as anything more than a spirited lark. It works on its own terms, but whether or not the experiment is a success is up to each reader to decide. [Tim O’Neil]