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New releases include Superman, Outcast, and a Palomar collection

Also reviewed: Larfleeze, Rocket Raccoon, & Picnic Ruined

Anyone coming to Gilbert Hernandez’s work fresh in the year 2014 has a steep hill to climb. Never a lazy cartoonist, he has become especially prolific in the last decade, producing stand-alone graphic novels in a number of different genres for Drawn & Quarterly, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and Vertigo. (To give an idea of how prolific he is, a quick Internet search reveals no less than three original graphic novels from Gilbert set to ship before the end of 2014, along with another volume of his and his brother Jaime’s yearly installment of Love & Rockets.) But his central work remains the Palomar stories he has produced for the pages of Love & Rockets and various related titles from the early ’80s through the present day. Although Hernandez has gone through periods without producing new Palomar work, he always comes back to the town and its fictional inhabitants, now in their fourth decade of ongoing adventures.

Luba And Her Family (Fantagraphics) captures a strange period in the serial’s ongoing narrative. The stories in this book were originally produced throughout the late ’90s and ’00s, primarily in the period between the end of the original magazine-size run of Love & Rockets and the title’s return in 2001. The end of the first volume saw series heroine Luba and her family fleeing violence in Palomar in order to begin again in the United States. The stories in Luba And Her Family take place primarily in Los Angeles, and follow Luba, her half-sisters Petra and Fritzi, and Petra’s pre-adolescent daughter Venus. If this brief description sounds intimidating, that’s an unfortunate side effect of following an ongoing narrative that has been in production for over 30 years. This reviewer has been reading Love & Rockets for decades and still has trouble remembering Luba’s family tree.

As counterintuitive as it may appear, the seeming inaccessibility of post-Palomar Gilbert stories is a feature, not a bug. He trusts his audience to be able to follow the thread of his stories. He doesn’t use narrative captions, there’s never any mention of time (“Meanwhile,” or “Six years ago…”), and conversations usually begin and end in media res. When he refers to a 25-year-old plot point, he expects the reader to know what he’s talking about, or, to be able to figure it out from context. That’s part of the fun: These stories are massively compressed. In the attempt to be as efficient as possible, the stories maintain a dreamy atmosphere, moving from character to character and incident to incident seemingly at random. It’s often not until the end of any particular vignette that the reader understands just what happened, or the significance of any number of ominous side-glances and cryptic allusions.

Roughly half of the stories are told through Venus’ eyes; even when she isn’t explicitly the viewpoint character, she remains prominently featured. Venus is a very appealing character—world-weary but hardly precocious, she must deal with her mother’s extreme inconsistency (a product of her sexual profligacy, pathological fitness, and frequent drug use), as well as her Aunt Fritzi’s well-meaning but often useless advice. Both women are quite unhappy, and all the sex they have does little to alleviate their anhedonia. Fritzi makes a regular habit of sleeping with her patients, while Petra’s marriage dissolves as a result of her frequent affairs. Petra eventually becomes born again and gives up sex, while Fritzi finds sexual satisfaction with firearms. Meanwhile Luba has to work to ensure her husband Khamo can join her in the United States, while also dealing with the consequences of two of her daughters coming out as gay. If the early Palomar stories earned comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez, these stories resemble early Bret Easton Ellis (think the affectless, dry prose style of Less Than Zero), with some Judy Blume thrown in for good measure.

There’s no real beginning or real ending for any of the stories in this volume. What the reader is given, instead, is multiple chapters in a family saga that shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Over the course of his career, Gilbert’s art has condensed down to a hard, laser-focused efficiency. He doesn’t waste time on shading or cross-hatching, but articulates more with body language and facial expressions than most other cartoonists could ever hope to say. His habit of cutting back and forth between different characters and time periods, sometimes in the space of a single page, creates an effect very much like collage. The reader has to pay attention or risk being overwhelmed by a tide of nuance and detail.

This isn’t the first Love & Rockets anyone should pick up. It’s not even the fifth. This is a book that promises subtle rewards for long-term readers. There’s a reason why this book is labeled #10 in Fantagraphics’ ongoing Love & Rockets reprint project: Simply put, there are nine books to seek out before opening this one. But anyone who’s read the previous nine will find much to love here as well. [TO]

Marvel creators jumping ship to DC is becoming a less frequent occurrence, so when DC gets its hands on a Marvel legend, it makes sure the world knows it. The last few months of DC books have featured two-page advertisements heralding the arrival of John Romita Jr. on Superman, his first DC project that isn’t a crossover with Marvel, and DC has attached its most popular writer to the series to guarantee a commercial success.

Geoff Johns hasn’t had the strongest track record in the New 52, but his past stint on Action Comics was a fun run that modernized classic concepts while maintaining the heart of Superman’s character, a heart that was full of love for a wife and two living parents. Lois and Clark aren’t married in the New 52, and the Kents are dead, but Johns takes advantage of the hero’s lonely status quo to highlight one of Superman’s most prevalent themes: alienation. As the last son of a dead planet, Superman is lacking friends who relate to his life experience, and Superman #32 (DC) gives him one in the form of Ulysses, the son of two Earth scientists who was sent to the fourth dimension as a newborn. The opening of the issue draws parallels between Ulysses’ and Kal-El’s childhood tragedies, and while it’s all a bit heavy-handed, it’s still an engaging introduction to the new character.

Teaming with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Laura Martin, Romita provides energetic artwork that is an excellent fit for Superman. An early two-page spread of the title character punching giant cybernetic gorilla Titano is the perfect encapsulation of why DC wants Romita for this book, and a later action sequence increases the intensity as Superman and Ulysses team up for the first time. Janson’s inks sharpen Romita’s linework, but most of the definition comes from Martin, who did similarly remarkable work coloring the artist on Marvel’s Avengers Vs. X-Men miniseries. While Romita nails Superman, Clark Kent, and the book’s supporting ensemble, his more fantastic design work leaves something to be desired. An alien warship looks like a slick cordless phone from a Sharper Image catalog, and Ulysses’ visual similarity to Nuclear Man from the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest For Peace doesn’t inspire much faith in the character’s future value.

The most exciting thing about Superman #32 is the course correction, with Johns’ script taking steps to get Clark back at the Daily Planet. The journalist aspect of Clark has diminished dramatically with his current role as reporter for Cat Grant’s Huffington Post-esque website, and putting Clark, Lois, and Jimmy back together on the press beat would help flesh out a side of the character that hasn’t seen much play in the New 52. With the rest of the Man Of Steel’s titles currently stuck in the creative quicksand of the “Doomed” crossover, Johns, Romita, and the rest of the Superman team are making this book an oasis for Super-fans, providing a fun, vibrant story with a retro charm appropriate for all ages. [OS]

Last month marked the end of Keith Giffen, J.M. Dematteis, and Scott Kolins’ Larfleeze (DC). Considering the state of the New 52, it’s a minor miracle the book lasted as long as it did—an even dozen issues, perfect for a meaty paperback collection, if such a thing is warranted. 

For those who slept through Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, Larfleeze was one of the best characters to emerge from what proved an extremely prolific period of new character creation. Larfleeze is the sole master of the Orange Lantern, which in DC’s color science reflects the emotion of greed. He’s the only Orange Lantern because he can’t bear to share anything with anybody—his Orange Lantern corps was composed of the souls of creatures he pressed into his service. He’s also irredeemably insane, having survived as the sole owner of the orange light for approximately one billion years, retaining few memories of his life before he found the lantern. Larfleeze is a figure of equal parts pathos and humor: His ring keeps him single-minded and ruthlessly obsessed with acquisition, to the detriment of any other emotion he could ever feel, but his ability to carry through on his schemes is stymied by the fact that he is just not very bright. At all.

Fans of Giffen and DeMatteis’ storied Justice League run will certainly recognize a lot of the humor on display here. The difference, however, is one of quantity, not quality: there’s nothing at all subtle or wry about Larfleeze. He is a cosmic idiot of dangerous proportions, and he careens through the universe with all the care of a bull in a shop filled with extremely expensive, very fragile china. He’s got a whole orange power battery to himself, so he’s single-handedly about as powerful as the entirety of the Green Lantern corps. Kolins is channeling his finest Kirby here, but it’s not merely a pastiche. His compositions are consistently energetic and succeed in pulling the reader through the stories at an admirable clip. He seems to have a good time drawing rubble, which is good: There’s almost as much rubble in these issues than the first four issues of Age Of Ultron, which is saying something.

Things don’t tend to stay in one piece when Larfleeze comes on the scene. (One complaint: Kolins draws G’Nort with a human nose, which is just about the most disturbing thing ever, even though Kevin Maguire did it, too.) Over the course of the year’s stories, he fell afoul of a family of cosmic marauders in the form of the House Of Tuath-Dan, who began rampaging across the DC universe after having destroyed their own. They get in a few good licks over the series’ run, but ultimately they are no match for Larfleeze’s totalizing self-regard: He saves the universe not out of any great desire to do good, but because the universe is where he keeps all his stuff.

DC gets a lot of flack for the general banality of much of their mainstream line, but they are still capable of producing interesting books outside the remit of their supposed “house style.” This is one such book. There’s no good reason why it couldn’t last forever, except for the fact that it was probably too funny and too over the top to please very many readers. Still, it’s very good, and well worth seeking out for anyone who slept on it the first time around. Goodbye, Larfleeze, you were too beautiful for this world. [TO]

Considering his aggressive stance on creators’ rights, Robert Kirkman sure is stingy with sharing the rights of his own projects with collaborating artists. In 2012, original The Walking Dead artist Tony Moore filed a lawsuit against Kirkman claiming that the writer deceived him into surrendering his rights to the property in exchange for payment that was never received, and Kirkman responded with his own lawsuit. The two parties eventually reached a settlement, but Kirkman hasn’t become any more generous with co-creator credit. Despite being solicited as Outcast By Kirkman & Azaceta—likely to avoid a lawsuit with Valiant Entertainment because of Valiant’s trademark on the Outcast name—the new Image ongoing only has Kirkman credited as creator, a shame considering how essential artist Paul Azaceta’s role is in bringing Kirkman’s words and ideas to the page.

Kirkman’s script for the double-sized Outcast By Kirkman & Azaceta #1 (Image), available at the regular $2.99 cover price, shows the writer’s skill for crafting gripping introductions that balance concept and character, giving the reader the opportunity to know these characters before horror invades their lives. Azaceta plays a huge part in capturing those personal lives, designing a diverse array of characters who occupy homes that reflect attitude through environmental details.

Azaceta is an artist who loves black, and his shady style is ideally suited for Kirkman’s story of demonic possession in a small town. By working with Sean Phillips on Fatale, colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser has honed her ability to preserve the creepy tone of heavily shaded rendering while incorporating a wide spectrum of colors to highlight different beats in a story and amplify emotional reactions.

The specificity of her colors with Azaceta’s refined linework—specifically regarding his facial expressions and body language—make Outcast one of Kirkman’s most striking debuts, and the strength of the art team pushes Kirkman to create a story that hits with equivalent force. Kyle Barnes has had multiple first-hand encounters with possessed loved ones, traumatic events that have left him a broken man with no sense of direction. Events in this first issue reveal that Kyle is part of a bigger picture, and the creative team gives plenty of reasons for readers to join Kyle on his path of supernatural discovery. [OS]

Marvel has made some truly inspired creative team choices for its new titles this year, giving the publisher its most diverse lineup of titles since the Jemas/Quesada era. Ms. Marvel is dramatically different from Moon Knight, which is dramatically different from She-Hulk, which is dramatically different from All-New Ghost Rider. There’s very little homogeneity across the All-New Marvel Now! titles, and Rocket Raccoon #1 (Marvel) is another idiosyncratic addition to Marvel’s stable. A madcap sci-fi comedy written and illustrated by Skottie Young, an Eisner Award winner for his endlessly imaginative art on Marvel’s Oz adaptations, Rocket’s solo series embraces the cartoonish exaggeration of Looney Tunes and Mad magazine for a delightfully silly take on superheroes.

Considering the star is an anthropomorphic raccoon mercenary, silly is definitely the right direction for Rocket Raccoon. Young’s artwork is overflowing with expression (hand-drawn sound effects are a big part of that) and detail, cementing the creator as one of the industry’s best character designers by giving him the opportunity to flex his creative muscles in an alien environment that demands strange creatures. Young’s Oz collaborator Jean-Francois Beaulieu amplifies the cartoon influence with bright, saturated colors—an opening two-page spread uses every shade in the rainbow—and Jeff Eckleberry takes a looser approach to the lettering that works well with the carefree tone of Young’s story, which sees Rocket rescuing a princess, attending an alien wrestling match, and running from space police.

The book’s only significant weakness is Young’s over-reliance on curse words that diminish the title’s all-ages appeal. These words are all censored with grawlix, and do fit with the hero’s personality, but Young doesn’t need them for the humor in this book. This is a comic that parents should be able to read to their kids before bed, and the language conflicts with the rest of the package Young is putting together. With Guardians Of The Galaxy poised to turn a generation of kids into Rocket Raccoon fans, Young’s first issue provides a welcoming comic-book entry point for new readers, one that will hopefully lead to those readers seeking more books from Marvel’s wide array of titles. [OS]

One of last year’s most promising debuts, Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood’s Dream Thief was a gorgeously rendered miniseries with a supernatural hook that kept the story speeding along at an exhilarating pace. When John Lincoln sleeps, he is possessed by the ghosts of scorned people who use his body to exact their revenge, constantly stranding John in strange locales, surrounded by dead bodies, with little idea of how he got there.

The thrilling disorientation is still prevalent in Dream Thief: Escape #1 (Dark Horse), but this new miniseries sees the creative team delving deeper into the history of these characters as John meets his father, who is currently a ghost trapped in the body of an elderly black man stuck in prison. Nitz’s script does strong work catching up new and returning readers without letting the exposition diminish the story’s momentum, and the amount of ground covered in just this first issues suggests a jam-packed narrative over the course of Escape’s four chapters.

Handling art, colors, and lettering, Smallwood exhibits the versatility and style that have earned him an upcoming gig replacing Declan Shalvey on Marvel’s Moon Knight. His characters and environments are meticulously detailed, and his unconventional layouts give the book a distinct design that is less rigidly structured than most comics. The miniseries format works best for this property, giving Smallwood enough time to dedicate equal attention to each page. It’s unlikely that the art would maintain this level of quality without that lead-in time, and the extra care makes Dream Thief: Escape one of those rare sequels that improves on the first series to make the concept and character even more alluring. [OS]

Roman Muradov is a professional illustrator with a sterling pedigree. He’s produced spot illustrations for The New Yorker and The New York Times, covered the Penguin Classics deluxe edition of Joyce’s Dubliners as well as Vogue Italia, and somehow managed to find time to produce a handful of comics. Picnic Ruined (Retrofit Comics) came out last year to little fanfare, and deserves a lot more attention than it has so far received.

The pamphlet’s story is simple: A young-ish melancholiac wanders around a city—presumably New York?—contemplating artistic irrelevancy and the effects of depression on his career. (The indicia page insists, “This is probably a work of fiction.”) But the story is, in this case, merely an excuse on which to hang the art. The book is composed of a series of gorgeous grayscale ink drawings, a style more commonly seen in magazines than comics. Picnic Ruined is a tour de force of cartooning energy, equal parts James Thurber, Gene Deitch, and Pablo Picasso. Muradov is making a conscious attempt to ape the technique of Picasso’s Guernica, something that has (surprisingly) only rarely been attempted, and even less with any significant success. The midcentury influence is pervasive: In addition to the aforementioned Thurber and Deitch, his character profiles owe a great deal to the economy of Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures.

Picnic Ruined is the kind of book that takes the reader completely by surprise. There’s not a lot on the market that looks like this these days. The story is a trifle, but the depth of talent on display here is such that Muradov probably won’t stay a secret for much longer. If anyone at Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly is paying attention, this book can and should have the opportunity to reach a much larger audience. [TO]

Corinne Mucha’s Get Over It (Secret Acres) is a breakup story, so if that genre doesn’t appeal, it may be best to move along. But for those still listening, it’s a very good breakup story.

The breakup doesn’t actually take much time at all—the relationship is effectively over after the first dozen or so pages. The rest of the book is about the aftermath of the relationship, the Kübler-Ross process of working through a breakup, so to speak. Denial—check: Mucha spends half the book pining for her ex and convincing herself the relationship wasn’t as bad as it obviously was. Anger—check: Mucha seethes at the mere mention of his name. Bargaining and depression (check and double-check) are repeated until finally, three years later, acceptance is reached. It sounds grim, but in Mucha’s hands it’s actually quite engaging. She has a knack for drawing funny. This might seem like an obvious thing for any cartoonist to have, but Mucha shares with the likes of Kate Beaton and John Allison the capacity to elicit humor from the barest of sketches. It’s a gift, and combined with her self-deprecating manner, it turns a book about three years of anguish into a page-turner. 

Mucha’s line is confident and clean. She switches between intense crosshatching and tidy stick figures with ease, all while maintaining a light tone throughout what could otherwise be a slog. Her sense of design is also notable—every new page tries a different tack. She draws noses like Dylan Horrocks, which is something that becomes unimaginably cute. Most importantly, however, she keeps her narrative from devolving into syrupy affirmations. She emerges with some hard-won wisdom, but only after a hundred pages of, by her own admission, fairly insufferable behavior. She’s managed to turn her pain into something heartfelt and compelling, which is no small feat. [TO]

Alex Toth was a comic-book visionary, but the majority of the general public knows his work from classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Super Friends. The final installment of Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell’s trilogy of hardcovers exploring Toth’s life and art, Genius, Animated: The Cartoon Art Of Alex Toth (IDW) is a beautifully packaged treasure trove for aspiring animators and lovers of the medium. Filled with designs, presentation art, and storyboards, it’s a comprehensive look a Toth’s astounding craft, which always strove for maximum effect with minimal linework.

A recurring theme of this book is that the final animation never lived up to the level of artistry displayed in Toth’s production work, making this retrospective the ideal way to view Toth’s contributions to these series, many of which never made it on the air. Those never-produced shows exist solely in Toth’s presentation art, distilling entire series concepts in single images that greatly benefit from Toth’s experience drawing comic book covers.

Pages and pages of model sheets spotlight Toth’s ability to create instantly memorable, intricately detailed characters, settings, props, and vehicles, and the storyboards reveal the incredible visual clarity that helped animators do better work. The biographical text and quotes from Toth and his colleagues paint a portrait of a passionate, occasionally combative artist desperate to see the cartoon medium explore its full potential, and that devotion proved contagious, inspiring future generations of animators to aim for greatness. [OS]

A glance at the cover or a quick flip through the pages may have a casual book browser thinking The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains (William Morrow) is Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book. It is definitely not. This is a dark tale rife with murder, rape, revenge, and machinations only hinted at by the subtitle: A Tale Of Travel And Darkness With Pictures Of All Kinds. And it is truly an innovative work from a master tale-spinner. Gaiman has taken a straightforward (if foreboding) narrative about two men making a trek in the Scottish mountains of Jacobite Britain, then he worked with an artist to put the story in a format most readers leave behind some time around the third grade.

Partially inspired by Gaiman’s reading of Otta F. Swire’s books on Scottish legends and his own travels in the those mountains, “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains” was originally an unpublished short story Gaiman dusted off in 2010 when he was invited to give a live reading of a story at the Sydney Opera House. The reading was accompanied by live music from a string quartet and art from renowned graphic novelist Eddie Campbell, which was projected behind Gaiman as he read. The result of the collaborative effort between these two artists has been captured in this book that is part illustrated prose and part graphic novel, yet remains delightfully disturbing. Campbell’s decision to turn several of the companions’ conversations into visually distinct comic panels is an inspired one, making the regular page illustrations seem like huge wall paintings and the conversation panels seem like snapshots into the minds of these men’s tortured souls.

The story was anthologized in 2010’s Stories: All New Tales and won the Locus Award as well as the Shirley Jackson Award in the novelette category—a distinction that also warns readers what they’re in for. And while the story pulls a reader in the way a Gaiman story is bound to do, the pictures are the thing: They are the glue holding it all together, pushing toward a conclusion that is no less chilling for the fact that the dwarf warned from the very beginning this is how it would all turn out. [AB]