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July 2, 2010

Megan Kelso worked on her debut graphic novel, Artichoke Tales (Fantagraphics), sporadically over the course of the past 10 years. During that time—and well before—she made a small but indelible mark on the alt-comics scene with her ongoing series Girlhero, as well as two short-story anthologies, Queen Of The Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. As beautiful as that previous work is, though, none of it sufficiently prepares readers for Artichoke Tales. Although parts of it have been previously published in her Ignatz Award-winning mini-comic of the same name, the finished product is sprawling. Going further into the realm of the fantastic than she’s ever ventured before, Kelso’s philosophical fairy-tale takes place in a war-torn land where soft contours of bodies and backgrounds harbor sharp angles of strife, despair, longing, and love. Kelso’s work radiates a warmth, poetry, sympathy, and simultaneously earthy and otherworldly essence that few comics creators have brought to the table with such quiet confidence and grace. The closest comic in recent memory to match Artichoke Tales, both in breadth and depth, is Jeff Smith’s BoneA

Issue #700 is a milestone only one other comic can claim to have passed, so DC really pulls out the stops for Superman #700 (DC). Dan Jurgens, probably best known now for killing the poor guy off for a while in the ’90s, contributes a story that’s no great shakes, but the two transitional stories more than make up for it. James Robinson has done some good work on the title, but has been hampered by the need to comply with various crossovers. But his final installment with Bernard Chang is a lovely way to go out, a powerful, emotional story in which Supes finally returns to Earth after a heartbreaking stint on New Krypton. The new creative team, J. Michael Straczynski and Eddy Barrows, kick off their run with a bang; JMS has written Superman-surrogate characters for years, and is clearly itching to bring his adult-issues-oriented approach to the real thing. (Gary Frank’s cover is also terrific, and it’s too bad he won’t be re-teaming with JMS for the actual ongoing title.) It’s hard to discuss either story without major spoilers, but they’re both excellent and well worthy of the milestone. If you haven’t been keeping up with the world’s greatest superhero, now’s a perfect time to get back on board… B+

When discussions of Grant Morrison’s greatest works take place, Seven Soldiers Of Victory isn’t often mentioned, but it’s hard to see why. The concept alone is pretty daring; he revives a Golden Age super-team, populates it with his usual mix of forgotten characters and new interpretations of familiar ones, then twists the formula by never having the seven meet. The approach of giving all the members of the SSOV their own books instead of combining them as a team also allowed Morrison to work with some of the best artists in the business, including Cameron Stewart, Simone Bianchi, and J.H. Williams, all matched with the character their individual styles suited best. The characterizations are top-notch, from the burnt-out Zatanna to the creepy Witchboy to the truly scary mysticism of their Fae opponent, and Morrison plays with form and plot without ever getting too over-the-top with the postmodern trickery. The original softcover collection was a bit perfunctory, but with Seven Soldiers Of Victory Volume 1 Hardcover (DC), it finally gets the treatment it deserves. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s also gorgeous, well-organized, and most importantly, made up of stories that justify the expense… A

In autobiographical comics, there’s a fine line between the profound and the mundane. Jeffrey Brown has always walked that line with a shaky step, falling just as often on one side as the other. When he excels—as he does on his lauded autobio graphic novels Clumsy and Unlikely—he’s brilliant. When he doesn’t, well, you have Undeleted Scenes (Top Shelf). An odds-and-ends compendium drawn from various sources over the past decade, the small but thick book features everything from one-panel gags to multi-page epics that showcase Brown’s trademark deadpan storytelling. While there’s subtlety and depth to be gleaned from careful readings of parts of the book—particularly the extended story “Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me,” another look at his mostly harmless obsession with females—Scenes is stuffed with far too much filler, some of it so boring, it borders on frustrating. With Brown’s prolificacy, a tighter editorial hand is a good thing; with a little pruning, this decent 350-page volume could have made an excellent 175-page book… B-

Self-deprecation is one thing, but shooting yourself in the foot before you even start running is another. The title of Shannon Wheeler’s I Thought You Would Be Funnier (Boom!) is a presumably goodhearted jab at the book’s concept—that is, a collection of his single-panel comics rejected by The New Yorker since the hallowed magazine started publishing him last year. Since his early days as the creator of the cult hit Too Much Coffee Man, Wheeler’s stark black-and-white art has quietly evolved into an immaculate, nuanced, controlled, and deceptively simple style, and it speaks ill of either Wheeler’s self-confidence or The New Yorker’s editorial taste that Funnier, in spite of its sarcastic name, is actually pretty damn funny. Perhaps more ribald, goofy, or just plain weird than the magazine would have preferred, Wheeler’s gags nonetheless embody The New Yorker’s patented comics formula of urbane satire and mild absurdity. They’re great little slices of wry observation and crisp, winsome inkwork. Not every comic here flies, and some bear the stretch marks of straining too hard to be snarky, but the rejects in Funnier might actually have more immediate appeal than some of Wheeler’s winners… B

The most disturbing thing about the first issue of Frenemy Of The State (Oni) isn’t the fact that its celebutante hero, Ariana Von Holmberg, looks almost exactly like the comics’ co-writer, actor Rashida Jones of The Office and Parks And Recreation. What’s weirder is the comic’s dead, leaden attempt at making the privileged Ariana remotely likeable or even logical. Drafted by the CIA because of her uncanny ability to spy on her ex-boyfriends—really, the idea isn’t as Scott Pilgrim-worthy as it sounds—Ariana spends entire pages getting catty with rival brats at exclusive soirees and delivering brain-numbing financial advice to her mother with dialogue like, “50 percent conservative—low yield, low risk. 30 percent in currency. That market’s doing well, hit it right, you’ll do well. The last 20 in stocks. Ooh, hey, buy Gucci platforms. Fashion will never let you down.” The creepiest thing about Frenemy, though, is this: It almost reads as if Jones—the daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones—is trying to justify her own well-publicized (if relatively tame) life as a rich kid. Of course, doing so in comic-book form doesn’t make much sense—not that anything in Frenemy does… D

It can be a risky move when writers begin to revisit characters in an anthology series, especially when it’s a fan favorite. It can be a sign of laziness, especially in a long-running title, or even worse, pandering. But in Criminal Volume 5: Sinners (Marvel), Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips handle the return of special-forces-expert-turned-reluctant-hit-man Tracy Lawless with aplomb, and the result is one of the best arcs to date in what’s already an outstanding series. Facing pressures both inside and out, Lawless and his ruthless boss Sebastian Hyde additionally have to deal with the mysterious assassination of ranking members of their criminal organization. Bringing in compelling new characters (the Army investigator Yocum and Hyde’s daughter Sabrina in particular) keeps the book from dipping too deep into fan service with Lawless, and the central mystery—though it’s the most violent Criminal arc we’ve seen so far—will keep readers guessing until its conclusion. It’s good to see that this excellent title shows no sign of slowing down… A-

Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’ Martha Washington stories were written over a period of two decades, and it shows. The ambitious science-fiction history of a young black freedom fighter born in a Chicago slum who grew up to become a liberating figure of galactic importance starts out as tight and edgy as the best of Miller’s ’80s work, but by the end, it falls victim to its own overreaching and Miller’s lack of focus. Likewise, Gibbons’ art can be a sticking point: His fans will find this to be some of his most daring work, but his detractors will find the same things to criticize here as they did in Watchmen. Still, the stories in toto are an important part of the history of two key figures in contemporary comics, and if you’re going to own them, The Life And Times Of Martha Washington In The Twenty-First Century TPB (Dark Horse) is the format to go with. It’s a 600-page full-color softcover edition that not only collects every single Martha Washington story up to and including the Martha Washington Dies one-shot that wrapped up the epic, but does so in the most affordable way they’ve yet been released. The devoted and the curious should move on this one now… B

Alan Moore didn’t waste any time making an impression on American audiences. His first assignment for DC was to take over Swamp Thing, a moody title whose sales were in the toilet; he instantly turned it into the best-written book on the DC roster, infusing the title character with a new and ambitious mythology, telling inventive and well-written stories, and creating a very different style of modern horror that readers had never before encountered. Saga Of The Swamp Thing Volume 3 (DC), a hardcover re-release of the collection previously titled “The Curse,” is probably most famous because it introduces John Constantine, who proved to be a breakout character and went on to star in the still-running Hellblazer title for Vertigo. But there’s a lot more going on than that. It kicks off the epic “American Gothic” arc, which transformed Swamp Thing from a monster to a god, and it features some of Moore’s creepiest tales, including the aquatic vampire story “Still Waters” and the racially charged “Southern Change.” Only the didactic and dated “Nukeface Papers” doesn’t hold up… B+

The brilliant, exciting, and surprisingly deep ’80s science-fiction/superhero mash-up Nexus generally deserves all the praise it gets; it was—and is—one of the greatest works of the first big indie-comics explosion. But Nexus Archives Volume 11 (Dark Horse) is the point at which even a lot of diehard fans are going to want to give up. Steve Rude’s name is still on the cover, but that’s the only place the legendary Dude is in evidence; the interior art is by inferior artists like Mark Heike and Hugh Haynes. Author Mike Baron was starting to burn out as well; villains like the Bad Brains and the replacement of Stan Korivitsky, a character who never caught on with fans, as the current Nexus, are a drag on the story, and can’t be overcome by what few interesting developments take place. There’s some interest in early artwork by the likes of John K. Snyder and Luke McDonnell, but at $50 a pop, even the most devoted have to ask if it’s worth it. For completists only… C

The Tom Strong series started out as the prime cut of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line, taking Moore’s concept of the “science hero” back to its pre-Superman origins, then rebuilding it with more wit and compassion. But Moore eventually shifted his creative energies more to Promethea and Top 10, and left Tom Strong’s sprawling cast of characters to a stable of co-writers and guest-writers, such that it’s become one of the few ABC titles to have a fairly robust life after Moore moved on. Most of the post-Moore Tom Strong-related books have been fairly dreary, but the new six-issue miniseries Tom Strong And The Robots Of Doom (Wildstorm) is off to a good start, with a look, story, and tone very close to the original. The look is due to penciler Chris Sprouse and inker Karl Story, Moore’s go-to Tom Strong artists, whose clean lines and big, uncluttered panels suit these comics’ direct storytelling style. The story and tone are the responsibility of British writer Peter Hogan, one of Moore’s regular fill-ins on the original series, and one with a good grasp of Moore’s vision of a noble adventurer beset by villains who resent his way of life. The Robots Of Doom brings back one of the worst of those bad guys, Ingrid Weiss, an unapologetic Nazi who stole Tom Strong’s seed and bore him a son, Albrecht. Here, Ingrid and Albrecht have altered the time-stream such that Tom’s family has disappeared and the Third Reich rules the world. Hogan has five more issues to do more with this story than run through the usual alternate-history paces; he’s on the right track with his focus on the hero’s despair at seeing the shining world he helped to make perverted by people who share his strength, but not his ideals… B+

By this point, there’s no real question that comics can be used to convey complex, mature stories. Regardless of how the form originated, writers and artists are now comfortable using it to express, well, just about anything. Thoughtful, exhaustively researched histories of Jack The Ripper? Playful fantasy adventures with Disney-inspired art? Spandex and violence fetishization? All are welcome. So there’s nothing wrong with Eddie Campbell and Daren White’s new graphic novel, The Playwright (Top Shelf), at least not conceptually. Odd as it may sound to an outsider, a slowly paced character study of a middle-aged bachelor isn’t really a new idea for the medium. That’s sort of a problem. Campbell’s art is as consistently evocative as ever, and White’s steady, rhythmic narration is effective enough in the moment, but as the panels progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine just what makes this story that much different from any of dozens of others. The main character is sexually repressed, nervous, creatively fecund, and desperately lonely. He remembers some things about his past, he tries to find new relationships, and he writes. It’s never actively unpleasant, but while the protagonist is undeniably well-observed, not enough is made of his writing to make that single, distinctive aspect of his story stand out. Without any real element to distinguish it, The Playwright blurs together as a passable, thoughtful, but weirdly unnecessary piece of work. The book design and page layout (four panels to a page) are aesthetically pleasing, and the work itself falls along those same lines: appropriate, gentile, and disappointingly generic… B

Like a curiously long-lived combination of Andrew Weil and Richard Alpert from the Harvard psychedelic drug trials, Mr. Natural is equal parts wellness huckster and sexed-up warts-and-all guru. With pretty much zero character development since his introduction inYarrowstalks in 1967, readers could probably dive in wherever they wanted, but Fantagraphics’ hardcover edition of The Book Of Mr. Natural feels like the perfect introduction to R. Crumb’s most enduring creation—and to the sexual peccadilloes that occasionally get both character and creator in hot water. Most of the stories here pit neurotic foil Flakey Foont against the wily sage, but the collection works best when it strays from their endlessly looping arguments about the meaning of life and zeroes in on Fred Natural himself, as in “Mr. Natural Meets The Kid,” where a blandly creepy boy in a suit interrupts the Natch’s desert wanderings, or in “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation,” with its Zax-like display of stubborn immobility. A text-heavy origin story disperses some of the haze surrounding the old lech’s days in the Near East, but the 40-page Devil Girl arc from Hup is the real draw here. It’s fascinating stuff, and should be mandatory reading for anyone who squirmed through Terry Zwigoff’s excellent Crumb documentary—or for anyone looking to get their danders up at Crumb’s allegedly misogynistic tendencies. A-