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New releases include Grayson, The Life After, and How To Be Happy

Also reviewed: Black Market, Henchgirl, Murder Me Dead, and Wicked Chicken Queen

The buzz for Eleanor Davis’ How To Be Happy (Fantagraphics) has been building for some time now, and it’s easy to see why. This volume is a collection of short stories that dabble in a number of different genres, from so-called literary fiction to fantasy and sci-fi. It’s a beautiful collection that announces the emergence of Davis as a formidable talent.

The most refreshing thing about this collection is the multiplicity of styles on display. Instead of picking one style and sticking with it throughout the book, Davis switches up her medium from story to story. “Thomas The Leader” is presented in a more conventional black-and-white ink drawing, but the next (untitled) story is complemented by splashes of violent watercolor. “No Tears, No Sorrow” has no lines at all, just flat color fields of blue, red, and gold, from which her characters emerge like paper cutouts against a white field.

It’s hard to even hazard a guess as to the medium used for the collection’s lead story, “In Our Eden”: It could be cutouts, or it could be stenciled ink washes, or woodblock prints. It could even be digital. However, the point is not that How To Be Happy is merely an exercise in empty virtuosity, but that Davis is confident enough to move between different styles at will, employing those techniques she thinks most appropriate for whatever story she’s trying to tell. That’s a rare gift in an art form where the most immense talents can spend their lives perfecting a single style.

Most of these stories deal in some way with unhappiness or melancholy. (Davis helpfully notes at the beginning: “This is not actually a book about how to be happy.”) “In Our Eden” tells the story of a band of back-to-nature former office workers who decamp to the forest in order to find something more fulfilling than being the ex-manager of a Bass Pro Shop in Tampa. The group slowly shrinks until all that’s left is “Adam” and “Eve,” wandering the swamp in skin and bones. Are they happy? Contented? Confused? The reader has to decide for him or herself. Something was missing in their lives to make them forsake the world in such a drastic fashion, and the question of whether or not they have finally found something to fill that hole goes unanswered.

Another vignette, “Darling, I’ve Realized That I Don’t Love You,” attacks the problem even more directly: An unnamed couple lambaste themselves for their mutual selfishness, only to decide that the solution to their problems is to have a baby. But the last image of the story is of the new family growing even farther apart as the result of the birth of a child. “Thomas The Leader” is a story of two kids who find an abandoned cabin in the woods, as well as a mysterious pile of whispering blankets in the attic. What’s under the blankets? We’ll never know, and neither will Thomas and Davey. Sometimes we don’t get the answers, and that can be its own kind of loss.

You will not find many more beautiful books released this year. Though the individual stories themselves may seem small and even translucent to the touch, the sum is something far greater than the parts. After you’ve read it once, you’ll find yourself revisiting these stories many times. The art is pretty and the stories are sad, but the effect is nothing less than a complete affirmation. [TO]

In the wake of Forever Evil, Dick Grayson’s secret superhero identity has been publicly revealed, and he’s presumed dead by the rest of the world, which provides a blank slate for a new creative team to try something different with the character. Grayson #1 (DC) casts Dick as a globetrotting agent of Spyral, the spy organization introduced in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. Pulling from Morrison’s run is a wise move, and this first issue has the style and energy that made Batman Incorporated stand out from the rest of the New 52 Bat-titles.

Writer Tim Seeley (working from a story co-written by Tom King) is telling a spy narrative—Dick and his field agent Helena Bertinelli need to retrieve a Russian meta-human from a moving train and bring him into Spyral’s custody—but it’s executed with panache by artist Mikel Janin and colorist Jeremy Cox. A Jim Steranko influence is evident in the graphic design flourishes and vibrant color palette, and the incorporation of these elements adds considerable flavor to the visuals, especially during fight sequences.

A brawl between Dick and Batman analogue Midnighter takes places in a gray missile silo, but once the action breaks out, Cox brings in a wide spectrum of background colors to accentuate the rhythm of Janin’s fight choreography. Janin grows dramatically with each new project, and his art in this issue shows how much he’s increased the fluidity of motion in his linework, most prominently highlighted in the sequences where Dick shows off his acrobatic skills.

Dick has been fighting to break out of Batman’s shadow for decades, and this new secret agent concept pushes him away from the dark urban vigilante role into something more distinct, thrilling, and sexy, a quality that Dick has always embraced more than his mentor. Grayson is a legitimately new path for the character, and the creative team is having a lot of fun with the freedom provided by the new status quo. [OS]

Joshua Hale Fialkov has done strong work on superhero projects for Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse, but the full scope of his writing talent is exhibited in his creator-owned titles. Following the success of The Bunker, which quickly made the transition from digital to print, Fialkov is launching a new ongoing series with Oni Press, offering his unique take on the afterlife by setting a story in the purgatory of suicides.

The Life After #1 (Oni) follows Jude, a man trapped in a soul-crushing routine who decides to take a chance one day and discovers that nothing about the world is what it seems. To start, whenever he touches someone, he sees that person commit suicide, and to make matters even more disorienting, his surroundings morph after physical contact. Like the first issue of The Bunker, The Life After introduces a plethora of mysteries to be explored in future issues, but this new title has a considerably larger scope thanks to the malleable time period of purgatory. (There’s also the question of the mysterious figures that appear to be programming purgatory from a distance, adding a fascinating sci-fi wrinkle to the story.)

Artist Gabo is a newcomer to the industry, but he makes a big splash with his work in this issue, reminiscent of All-Star Western’s Moritat in its detailed environments and animated characters. An early two-page sequence has Gabo chronicling Jude’s boring routine in 50 small panels that do outstanding work highlighting the minutiae that take up Jude’s days and the slow crawl of time. When Jude breaks from his pattern, the layouts open up to emphasize his new freedom. The time fluctuations force Gabo to include specific period details, and the depth of his design work in this first issue promises a visually exciting title moving forward as the creative team explores the lives and afterlives of different suicides from the past, present, and future. [OS]

Sam Alden’s Wicked Chicken Queen (Retrofit/Big Planet) is like few other comics you will ever encounter. Just describing the plot presents a challenge. The book—a very short one, no less—recounts the history of a race of humanoid beings with giant eyes for heads who settle on a remote island after losing their previous home. They settle and adapt, and eventually one of the islanders finds a giant chicken egg. The king takes the egg and raises the chicken as his daughter. The chicken becomes the Chicken Queen after the king’s death, and rules wisely until the death of her wife, at which point she retires from public view. In the queen’s absence, the people build an industrialized society at the foot of the her palace, until she wakes from her slumber one last time. All of this happens in the space of 24 pages.

Wicked Chicken Queen is told in the format of an illustrated book, with each page containing a large illustration and a few lines of exposition at the bottom. The illustrations are entirely in pencil, and the reproduction is good enough that you instinctively flinch from touching the page, lest you come away with graphite-stained fingers. The pictures are themselves unique—not abstract, but not completely representational, they often resemble maps filled with tiny figures acting against the background of distorted landscapes and strange geology. It resembles nothing so much as a surreal new Richard Scarry book, only with eye-people and chicken monarchs instead of bears and lions.    

Despite its strangeness, this kind of book could only be a labor of love. It’s gorgeous, but also unsettling. If there’s a copy of this book on the shelf at the local comic-book shop, grab it without hesitation. It’s the type of oddity at which comics excel, but which don’t usually stick around for very long.  [TO]

Something else comics do well—almost uniquely well, in fact—is giving the reader an opportunity to see promising young talents grow up in public. Think about it: Even the most prolific musicians can only release so many albums in a calendar year. Novelists take years between projects to gestate. Movies take a similar amount of time. But a cartoonist with a venue can post a strip every day, or two or three a week, for as long as they want. Readers get to see artists change and develop gradually over the course of many years. There are few more satisfying feelings than going back to a cartoonist’s early work and charting just how much better they’ve got since they started, however long ago that may be. 

Kristen Gudsnuk’s Henchgirl is already a good strip by an appealing artist, and it holds the promise of becoming even better if Gudsnuk sticks with it long enough. The strip is just over a year old. In that time the artist has progressed from rough pen and ink with sepia washes (or felt-tipped pen?) to full-color. Gudsnuk has an eye for character: Even if the genre is familiar (superhero satire/spoof), her approach is fresh. The titular protagonist is an underachieving, vaguely superpowered assistant crook in a dead-end job as the hired muscle for the sadistic Monsieur Butterfly. The problem is she has a conscience, which is a terrible handicap in her line of work. She’s also fallen in love with the superhero Mannequin, who has perhaps the worst superpower ever endowed on a costumed hero since the dawn of the medium (which this writer would never spoil for you).

It’s still early enough to be able to troll the archives in one sitting. Seeing Gudsnuk’s artistic growth over the last year—not just her ability to draw, but her ability to frame set pieces, pace action, and her ear for dialogue, have all improved dramatically. Henchgirl herself—a.k.a. Mary Posa—is an endearing character, and those don’t exactly grow on trees. Cute but not gorgeous, perpetually in the shadow of an overachieving sister, insecure about fitting into her leather work leotard but confident enough to get the job done, lazy but stubborn, she’s a recognizable person. This writer looks forward to following her adventures for many years to come. [TO]

It can be extremely difficult to find an interesting angle on superheroes that hasn’t been done before, but writer Frank J. Barbiere has done it in Black Market #1 (Boom), a new miniseries about a team of non-powered men who hunt superheroes so that they can use their mutated organs for medical research. Or at least that’s what Denny tells his mortician brother Ray to convince him to help; the ending of this issue suggests far more sinister intentions are at play.

Barbiere has established himself as one of the industry’s most promising emerging writers, and he’s had the great fortune of partnering with artists that wonderfully complement his stories, from Chris Mooneyham’s retro stylings on Five Ghosts to the wildly energetic visuals of Toby Cypress on The White Suits. With a cartoonish art style that calls to mind the works of Darwyn Cooke and Frank Esposito, Victor Santos creates an appropriately moody atmosphere for the story, and the animation influence provides levity that balances the darker aspects of Barbiere’s script.

The structure of this first issue keeps the momentum moving quickly as Barbiere shifts from past to present, beginning with Ray already in the field before flashing back to show the steps that lead to his new line of work. Changes in tone are accentuated by Adam Metcalfe’s coloring, which uses saturated hues to maintain the high contrast in Santos’ linework, and Metcalfe turns up the intensity in the present-day sequences to make the superhero action hit harder. With a strong hook, crisp art, and evocative coloring, Black Market #1 is a captivating debut, especially for readers looking for an unconventional superhero story. [OS]

Fans of crime comics should be thanking Image Comics for putting David Lapham back in the creator-owned spotlight with the return of Stray Bullets, and the publisher’s commitment to the cartoonist’s work continues with a sleek reprint of Murder Me Dead (Image), Lapham’s nine-part tribute to classic film noir. The story begins with Steven Russell discovering his wife hanging from a ceiling fan in the living room of their Hollywood home, and it only gets darker as Steven becomes romantically involved with a beautiful woman from his past that brings her own significant problems into his life.

Lapham has an incredible talent for writing suspenseful, brutal stories, but this graphic novel shows his ability to craft a mystery that keeps the reader guessing as new twists are thrown into the mix. The contrast of his black-and-white linework is amplified, taking cues from film noir directors to surround his characters in ominous shadows, and he realizes his bicoastal urban environment in meticulous detail. His Los Angeles is glitzy and glamorous, but there’s still that omnipresent darkness lurking where the sun can’t reach it.

When the story shifts to New York City, the world becomes grittier and dirtier, the setting reflecting the changes in Steven’s character as he foolishly tries to win a tortured woman’s love. In an extremely effective layout choice, a major flashback reveal is presented in large panels that take up half the page, adding huge weight to each moment by breaking from the tighter structure of the preceding chapters. It’s a scene that showcases Lapham’s deep understanding of the medium, and the breadth of his knowledge regarding writing, art, and the guiding principles of film noir make Murder Me Dead a must-have for lovers of crime stories in any form. [OS]

When reading Jesse Jacobs’ Safari Honeymoon (Koyama), the primary feeling is one of total immersion. It’s not just a graphic novel about a newlywed couple taking their honeymoon in a strange, dangerous environment, it’s a sensory experience that engulfs the reader in an intricately detailed biosystem of horrific parasites, alien foliage, and geometric spirits. While a considerable portion of the story details the personal drama between the unnamed husband, wife, and their safari guide, Jacobs regularly deviates from the main action to show different aspects of the environment, pulling readers deeper into the setting with silent sequences that focus on the unusual, often disturbing beauty of the terrain and its inhabitants. The contrast of whimsy and terror in Jacobs’ designs contributes to the unsettling visuals, but the imagination and craft on display on every page prevent the story from alienating the reader with grotesquerie. On the surface, this is a nightmare honeymoon, but as the characters become more in tune with their strange new world, it becomes something akin to paradise. [OS]