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January 29, 2009

First issues are tough to judge, and first issues of miniseries even tougher. Creators rarely have time to do more than simply lay out the basics of a story and offer enticement enough to lure readers back for more. Not much happens in the first issue of Joe The Barbarian (Vertigo). A kid visits his father’s grave, draws in a sketchbook, gets hassled by bullies, forgets to take some insulin, and starts hallucinating a fantasy world constructed from the elements of his attic bedroom. Yet Grant Morrison’s past work suggests that he’ll do a lot with this emotionally loaded, reality-bending setup, and Sean Murphy’s art creates a wonderful sense of lived-in interiors—dig that toy train suspended from the ceiling—that might easily bend in bizarre ways. This eight-issue series could, and likely will, explore some strange places, and it looks like it will be worth tagging along as it does… B+

Fans of the Hernandez Brothers have always played favorites, and the war between those who prefer Beto’s works to Jaime’s will probably never be won by either side. (There’s got to be someone somewhere who likes Mario best, right?) But even Jaime devotees should be paying attention to Gilberto’s recent work; since he closed the books on Luba, he’s been flexing his muscles with some astonishingly effective genre exercises, the latest of which is The Troublemakers (Fantagraphics). A lurid pulp excursion featuring an appropriately leering cover by Rick Altergott, the book uses peripheral characters from Beto’s other works to craft a story about missing cash, hot sex, and two-timing that combines equal parts neo-noir and sleazy ’70s-throwback exploitation. But what elevates it from being a simple mélange of clever genre riffs is Beto’s determination to load it with uneasy surrealist images and clever symbolic elements. The Troublemakers doesn’t read entirely like anything he’s done before, but it may be his best work in years… A-

Although it’s been one of the most highly praised manga in recent Japanese history, winning a number of awards, major critical praise, and movie and radio adaptations, Fumiyo Kouno’s Town Of Evening Calm, Country Of Cherry Blossoms (Last Gasp) has never caught on with an overseas audience. Last Gasp is re-releasing the book in a deluxe format in hopes of catching the sort of audience that would naturally be attracted to it—fans of comics like Maus and films like Grave Of The Fireflies, which it resembles in certain aspects. The book tells two stories, separated in time but ultimately blending together, of young women—a nervous tomboy in Tokyo, and a serious, caring seamstress in Hiroshima—whose lives are affected by the atomic blasts of World War II, but in indirect ways that allow Kouno to weave a delicate slice-of-life narrative instead of a grand, sweeping historical drama. In following the lives of the two women, and how their families, personalities, and futures are shaped by the proximity of an unthinkable event, Kounu tells a compelling story through the accumulation of small moments… A

Like all of Kazu Kibuishi’s recent comics art (as seen in his Flight anthologies and his Amulet books), his periodic webcomic Copper is gentle and child-accessible, but richly sophisticated and colorful enough to lure in adult readers. Still, the collected Copper (Scholastic) is less adult than Amulet, and less challenging for the younger set as well. In the Copper stories—most just one page long, though the book contains some longer efforts—the titular kid and his talking dog, Fred, wander through diverse landscapes, from a realm of giant talking mushrooms to the interior of a massive clock to outer space. Sometimes they appear to be vagabonds, adrift after an apocalypse; sometimes they’re explorers who return to a cozy house at the end of the day. Sometimes they have a Calvin and Hobbes dynamic of arguing philosophy while exploring; more often, Fred is a fussy, needy soul whose fears and restlessness dominate the page, contrasting with Copper’s equanimity and curiosity. On occasion, the strips strive to convey specific points, usually gentle messages about enjoying yourself in the moment and not worrying too much about the future, the past, or how other people see you. Other strips just explore richly detailed landscapes and the characters themselves. Copper isn’t nearly as driven or plot-focused as Amulet, and there’s nothing much pulling readers forward through the book but curiosity. It has its own gentle positives, especially for Flight fans looking for still more brightly colored design experiments, but it’s a pretty laid-back experience. Fortunately, prospective buyers can still check out the strip online and see whether it’s for them… B

Another recent Scholastic book, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, is almost as bright and breezy, but tells a personal story on an all-ages-accessible level. As an energetic sixth grader, Telgemeier fell and smashed her two front teeth; her dentist replaced them in her upper palate, but they healed poorly, requiring surgery and years of braces, headgear, and prosthetics. Telgemeier tells the story in bright cartoons and with a sense of humor, but without neglecting the physical pain, or the emotional upset of her worries about being the weird vampire-toothed kid, especially when her friends start picking on her for it. As she grows up, the story follows her dental issues—explaining the procedures in detail, which makes this a great book for young teenagers about to get braces—but also brings in her surrounding life, including her youthful crushes, her relationship with her family, the choices that led her to cartooning, and her general development from gawky sixth-grader to excited high-schooler. Smile winds up midway between For Better Or For Worse (whose Lynn Johnston provided an enthused back-cover blurb) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. It’s meant for young readers, but it’s a light, heartening pleasure nonetheless. (It’s also a million times better than Telgemeier’s last book, the misbegotten X-Men manga Misfits…) B+

Ever since the mainstreaming of comics, there’s been money to be made in repackaging previous content of superhero titles and selling them back in a new format. DK Press specializes in this sort of thing, and its oversize, hardbound DC and Marvel Encyclopedias—mini-biographies of major heroes, villains, places, and events, all printed on glossy paper—have met with great success. The formula doesn’t work as well in The Vertigo Encyclopedia (DK), an attempt to apply the gimmick to DC’s sophisticated, adult-centered imprint. While DK deviates a bit from the norm, dedicating multiple pages to narrative and detail rather than the usual single-page entries with videogame-style statistics boxes, the Encyclopedia format simply doesn’t work well to encapsulate the appeal of books that rely on art, tone, and mood to draw readers in. With Vertigo, it’s about the execution rather than the concept, and that stymies the DK approach. Not a bad pickup for collectors or completists, but otherwise unsatisfying… C

Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, described some really terrific fictional comics. Using the medium as a way for two artistically gifted young men to express themselves in exciting, sometimes revolutionary ways, Chabon wrote line after beautiful line about The Escapist, his adventures, and the innovative techniques his creators developed to show those adventures. It’s understandable that anyone enjoying Chabon’s novel would be curious what a “real-life” Escapist comic might look like, and just as wary about the potential disappointment of a poorly-considered tie-in. Now appearing in paperback for the first time, The Escapists (Dark Horse) dodges the danger of not living up to the hype by approaching it from an unexpected angle. Writer Brian K. Vaughan tells the story of a writer who’s inspired enough by the original Escapist to want to rejuvenate the character for a modern audience; his exploits, and the people he meets along the way, make for a fun, sweet homage to the original novel. Art by Steve Rolston and Philip Bond contrasts the more mundane real world with the stylized wonder of Jason Shawn Alexander and Eduardo Barreto’s comic-within-a-comic, and while the story is familiar, it’s well-told, and arrives at an inspiring conclusion that makes it a worthy enough addition to the Kavalier & Clay mythos. Only the introductory short story by Chabon seems like an afterthought… A-

What’s better than Batman? How about Batman… and monsters? That’s the concept of the declaratively titled Batman: Monsters (DC), a collection of three stories originally published in the mid-to-late-’90s. The first, “Werewolf,” has Bats traveling to London to solve a pair of disparate murders. The second, “Infected,” deals with the affect two human bioweapons have on an unsuspecting Gotham. And the third, “Clay,” goes back to Batman’s first encounter with Matt Hagen, a good-looking punk who stumbles across the mudbath of a lifetime. The writing, by James Robinson, Warren Ellis, and Alan Grant respectively, is solid—the sort of meat-and-potatoes storytelling that makes for a fun hour or two of reading. The art ranges from murky to overheated, but the horror-movie mood remains consistent throughout, and the fights deliver the expected amount of punching and gore. The biggest drawback is that the weakest of the three segments, “Werewolf,” is the first and the longest; while it isn’t terrible, it has a predictable Scooby-Doo vibe, and Batman’s internal narration is awfully chipper. B