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Moomin and Squirrel Girl delight, Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen stimulates

Also reviewed: Fatherland and Ivar, Timewalker

Christmas gift-giving season is long over, but if you feel like buying yourself a present to bust those winter blues, Drawn & Quarterly has you covered. It has been publishing Tove Jansson’s Moomin strips since 2006. Although the Moomin novels and picture books were never unknown in the United States, they remained in circulation primarily as cult objects. Initially unsure whether the Finnish cartoonist’s work could find an audience in the English-speaking world, the books became the fastest sellers in the company’s history. The cult was, blessedly, larger than anticipated. It was even large enough to continue publishing Moomin books after Jansson’s original run, and into the period after her brother Lars had taken over the strip (the series is currently on volume 9). Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (Drawn & Quarterly) features the entirety of Jansson’s run, from 1954-1959.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, the Moomin are chalk-white hippo creatures that live in Finland. There’s a familial resemblance to Al Capp’s Shmoos. Skeptical readers may be rolling their eyes already, but the Moomin are a breed apart from the anodyne children’s entertainment popular in the Anglo-American world. They aren’t always nice and they don’t solve their problems by hugging; they’re just as likely to celebrate never having to work again by getting drunk on berry wine. Young Moomintroll (or, “Moomin” for short) is naive and spirited, albeit often depressed. His parents, Moominpappa and Moominmanna are, respectably, distracted and unflappable. Moomintroll’s best friends are an itinerant wise man with a deep distrust of authority (the impish human Snufkin) and an immature rat-dog (Sniff). Moomintroll’s girlfriend is Snork Maiden, and Snorks are almost identical to Moomins, save for the fact that Snorks can change color.

What sets the Moomin stories apart is Jansson’s unique and endearingly tetchy perspective. Considering how big the Moomin stories were and remain in Europe and across the globe (Japan loves the Moomin, as you might expect), it is remarkable how distinct and personal Jansson’s vision remained throughout the series. The Moomin are by turns vain, skeptical, cynical, gullible, and just as likely to run afoul of the police as they are to adventure across the high seas. The stories themselves are odd and rickety contraptions, beginning at arbitrary points (one sequence begins with Moomintroll sniffing around in the bushes for something with which to start the story), careening from one plot to another until the original conflict and the characters themselves are thoroughly exhausted. Fans of Floyd Gottfredson’s early, freewheeling Mickey Mouse strips will find something similar here.

The Deluxe Anniversary Edition is a formidable volume, a full 448 pages of daily comic strips accompanied by a few pages of sketches and essays. Despite its size it fits neatly in two hands spread across your lap, or you can lay it flat on a table, enabling you to read the book with a friend, perhaps a young one sitting on your lap and pointing at all the funny pictures. That said, these are not strictly children’s strips. There are too many sharp edges and eccentricities for anyone, especially a child, to appreciate immediately. The Moomin world is worthy of many visits. [TO]

As DC converges and Marvel prepares for a Secret War, Valiant Comics is becoming a more attractive third option for readers who want strong superhero titles without the baggage of Big Two comics. Valiant is still in the early stages, building a stable of characters while DC and Marvel are trying to figure out how to negotiate all the different versions of the heroes they’ve introduced over the years. Everything is more contained and accessible at Valiant, largely because it has limited its output to no more than nine titles a month, rotating different characters into the spotlight to see which ones resonate strongest with readers.

The Valiant Next publishing initiative will see six new titles launch by April, and Ivar, Timewalker #1 (Valiant) is the first ongoing series of the bunch, reuniting the Archer & Armstrong team of writer Fred Van Lente and artist Clayton Henry for a sci-fi action adventure starring a time-jumping immortal and a young female physicist. There’s definitely some Doctor Who in the book’s DNA, but as books like Marvel’s Silver Surfer have proven, the Doctor Who formula is a great foundation, because it offers limitless storytelling possibilities while grounding fantastic events in a core relationship between one central figure and a companion.

This first issue brings the two characters together with an extended action sequence that highlights the thrill of time travel. Ambushed by mysterious agents at Switzerland’s CERN, Ivar grabs Dr. Neela Sethi out of the present and takes her to 1805’s Battle Of Trafalgar for some maritime action before settling into the 41st Century to deliver some valuable exposition. The story’s rapid pace heightens Neela’s disorientation and confusion as she’s dragged along on an adventure she didn’t ask for, but by the end of the issue, Van Lente makes it very clear why Neela’s an essential part of the narrative with a cliffhanger that introduces many paradoxical questions.

Henry’s smooth, crisply detailed artwork transitions between quiet character moments, tense drama, and spectacular action with ease, realizing Van Lente’s script with clean, multifaceted visuals. His layouts in this issue are more imaginative than his usual work, particularly a two-page spread that layers two-dimensional panels in a three-dimensional space to show Ivar and Neela moving through different planes of time. Brian Reber’s coloring distinguishes these time periods by applying different shades to each panel, alternating between, warm, cold, and neutral tones with each jump. But the most important thing about the artwork for this first issue is Raul Allen’s cover, which captures the book’s concept in one arresting graphic visual. Valiant is putting more emphasis on creating attention-grabbing covers for its Valiant Next books, and this focus on bold design will help these titles stand out from other superhero fare even more. [OS]

It’s been almost two decades since Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville established him as a major new voice in comics, a creative and professional breakthrough that was followed by assorted smaller pieces and a few projects for DC Comics and Vertigo, but nothing that could be considered a true follow-up to his seminal work. That finally changes with the release of Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen (Fantagraphics), a full-color graphic novel detailing the artistic crisis of a cartoonist struggling to make something meaningful as he does freelance work for a superhero comics publisher.

The book has a fair share of autobiographical elements—the self-portrait attached to Horrocks’ bio looks an awful lot like the lead character Sam—but it quickly becomes evident that this is more than just a look at one man’s creative ennui. When Sam discovers a comic that magically transports its readers into the story, he finds himself in an environment that forces him to examine the erotic roots of visual fantasies by male creators. It may sound very cerebral, but the energy and excitement of the storytelling makes Sam’s artistically enlightening experience a thrilling adventure for the reader.

From the lush paintings of John William Godward to pulpy Golden Age comics, over-sexualized contemporary superheroes, and slimy hentai manga, this graphic novel looks at how erotic imagery produced through the male gaze has evolved over the past century, but it never lets the intellectual elements get in the way of the fun. And this book is a lot of fun once it moves away from the depressed cartoonist plot and into the magical new worlds Sam is transported to. He enters different comics as the story continues, and Horrocks takes advantage of the magical nature of the narrative to push his art in new directions, incorporating a variety of influences to change the visual style depending on what comic Sam and his accomplices April and Miki jump into.

April and Miki are side characters, but they’re essential to the story. April represents the female gaze that is currently rising in the comics industry, and the story ultimately argues that it’s time to let women dominate the future’s erotically charged power fantasies. Horrocks’ script ponders the moral responsibility an artist has to the fantasies he or she creates, and Miki is a major part of that discussion, embodying the human cost of these erotic stories.

Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen may contain nudity and (not particularly graphic) sexual content, but it’s a great title for teen readers, offering valuable insights about the process of creation and the artist’s ability to challenge or reinforce social ideals. It’s a very different beast from Hicksville, but like that previous work, it spotlights Horrocks’ love of the medium, its history, and its future. [OS]

Nina Bunjevac is a Canadian artist of Yugoslavian descent. Although she immigrated back to Yugoslavia with her mother in 1975 at the age of two, she eventually returned to Canada to finish her education in 1990. The reason for her leaving the country is detailed in Fatherland: A Family History (Liveright), a new graphic memoir that reaches far back into the troubled history of the Balkans and through the darkest days of World War II in order to tell Bunjevac’s story.

Peter Bunjevac, Nina’s father, fled Yugoslavia for Canada in the 1960s after serving time in prison for speaking out against Joseph Tito’s ruling Communist party. He met his wife by mail, and she followed him across the ocean a few years later. But the elder Bunjevac also became involved in a radical expatriate group still loyal to the anti-Communist royalists who fled the country in exile after World War II. Bunjevac joined Freedom For The Serbian Fatherland, a terrorist group dedicated to striking the Yugoslavian government on foreign soil through embassy bombings and assassinations, which they did across North America throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Nina’s mother did the best she could to hide the children from the dangers of Peter’s life, until finally fleeing with her daughters (forced to leave her son behind) back to Yugoslavia.

Bunjevac’s detail-heavy illustrative style, defined by heavy crosshatching and pointillistic texture, is well chosen to tell a story composed largely of old photographs and historical tableau. Although her technique and her subject matter are likely to bring immediate comparison to Joe Sacco’s journalistic work on the Balkans conflict, another immediate touchstone is Howard Cruse, of Stuck Rubber Baby fame. Although Bunjevac’s figures are far less flexible, both cartoonists share an understanding of negative composition, using spotted whites against black background to create the illusion of history emerging out of the darkness of unconsoled memory.

Fatherland is proof that the field of comics autobiography has not, despite relative saturation, yet exhausted itself. Although Bunjevac’s story is not perfect—the ending will likely divide readers and critics—her formal ambition, tied to compelling subject matter, will ensure her work a warm reception. [TO]

Last week, Marvel announced that this year’s Secret War event would lead to a dramatic restructuring of the Marvel Universe, combining the publisher’s various alternate dimensions and timelines into one shared world. There hasn’t been much information about this upcoming status quo change, but hopefully the new Marvel Universe will still have room for titles like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Marvel), a delightful new all-ages series from writer Ryan North, artist Erica Henderson, and colorist Rico Renzi.

After a few years as an auxiliary member of the Avengers, Squirrel Girl is ready to move out of Avengers Mansion and start a new life as Empire State University student Doreen Green. Her first day on campus involves moving into her dorm, meeting her roommate, and fighting Kraven The Hunter, and each task poses a different challenge for Doreen to overcome in her own quirky way. For example, she stops a gang of thieves by beating them up while singing her theme song, a rewritten version of the 1969 Spider-Man TV show theme. But she doesn’t always resort to fisticuffs, and it’s refreshing to see a superhero take a different approach to stopping the bad guys. Readers lamenting North’s recent departure from Kaboom’s Adventure Time should seek out this new series, which applies the writer’s comic sensibility to the superhero genre, complete with short punchlines along the bottom of most pages.

Squirrel Girl is considerably sillier than the typical superhero title, reflecting the title character’s carefree perspective with bright, exaggerated artwork and a script filled with jokes and visual gags. Henderson draws very lively characters—from the buck-toothed lead to the aggressive villain, whose depiction shares some similarities with Kate Beaton’s hilarious interpretation of Kraven from Strange Tales—and devoting ample attention to the ESU campus makes Squirrel Girl and Kraven’s conflict stick out in the middle of the academic setting. The impact of her artwork is amplified by Renzi’s expressive palette, applying vivid pastels and neons that pop against the neutral urban surroundings. Doreen brings color to the world around her, and her solo title stands out by emphasizing her attitude as much as possible. [OS]