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Nice try, Marvel, but Vote Loki cuts too close to this election to be much fun

Also reviewed: Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures Of Urban Decay, Visitations, and The World Of Edena

In 2008 DC Comics released a series called DCU: Decisions that promised to reveal the true political affiliations of all your favorite superheroes. Co-written by ideological opposites Bill Willingham and Judd Winick, it was as awful as the description sounds—Power Girl as a law-and-order Republican never seemed to fit, and that was typical of the book’s random attribution of political affiliations. That same year Marvel launched its Dark Reign event, a storyline that began with the premise that a murderous supervillain managed to take over the country with a well-timed PR coup. To say the story stood athwart the political winds of the time would be an understatement. And don’t forget “Superman’s Mission For President Kennedy”—originally slated to be published in December of 1963, before finally seeing print the following summer.

Comic books and electoral politics rarely work together, in other words, and this terrible tradition continues in Vote Loki #4 (Marvel). It would be difficult to blame the creative team of Christopher Hastings and Langdon Foss for the problems with this book—namely, that it exists at all, a lighthearted political tie-in Loki vehicle set in the middle of a political contest that is anything but lighthearted, and which becomes increasingly desperate with each passing day. The book arrives three weeks out from Election Day with a sickly wet thud. No one’s having fun with politics right now.

The premise of the Vote Loki series may seem familiar. A political parvenu with dubious credentials and no concrete policies swings huge swaths of the electorate by telling them exactly what they want to hear, which every supporter interprets to bolster their own prejudices. He tells his supporters straight away, “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it.” It’s up to Thor and Angela, along with the power of the press, to expose Loki as a dangerous supervillain bent on world domination. But the whole national political campaign was apparently a plan to launch a friend of Loki’s in a career as a political reporter? Remember, this is the kinder, gentler Loki of the past few years, bent toward the goal of redemption if still constitutionally unable to use any but the most duplicitous means to achieve even noble goals.

It’s likely that the series was conceived and planned long before the first ballot was cast in the first primary, when the idea that the 2016 election would unfold under more or less normal circumstances was still a probability. But for the last issue of this series to see print at this particular moment is regrettable. This is, again, no slight on the creative team. Hastings’ script explores the awkward concept with a fair amount of wit, making a good-faith effort to use Loki’s shiftlessness and opportunism as a commentary on the malleability of the American electorate. Foss’ work is strong, actually significantly stronger than the material. He has a loose style that allows for a degree of exaggeration in terms of facial expression that fits the story, an unavoidably talky premise that requires a great deal of visual imagination to work on the page. It’s neither man’s fault that in this disastrous and volatile political climate the book’s premise cuts a little too close to be funny. [Tim O’Neil]

Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures Of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly) is one of those magical books that changes the way the reader views the world after its been consumed, especially for readers living in urban environments. Reprinting Katchor’s 25-year-old collection of comics strips (with one short story), this new hardcover is a love letter to the antiquated aspects of American cities that feel almost ancient given the massive cultural changes since the late ’80s, when Katchor introduced Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, to the world. Knipl’s job forces him to be acutely aware of the changing landscape of the city, and Katchor uses his character to offer rich observations about urban living while working within a tight two-row comic strip structure.

These observations are probably new to most city-dwellers, especially with the rise of technology that makes it easier for residents to ignore surroundings, but Katchor’s insights burrow into the memory and influence readers to start paying attention to little details like the signatures of elevator inspectors, the reflections in the glistening crust of a cheese Danish, and the subtle changes in sidewalk concrete. He details the feeling of hope in seeing a “For Rent” sign go up in a commercial space—who hasn’t wished that the vacant space in their neighborhood would be filled with a good restaurant?—and the sense of defeat when noticing that the local deli has put chairs on top of tables to close up for the night. Katchor has a talent for describing the ephemeral emotions urbanites experience on a daily basis thanks to the ever-shifting state of the city, but instead of letting these feelings pass, Katchor lingers on them and gives them definition in comic strips.

Katchor isn’t just a skilled cartoonist; he’s an urban prophet, noticing the rising tides of gentrification that will strip cities of their distinct character and the ubiquity of name brands that will wipe out smaller businesses like those in the Cheap Merchandise District, where the book’s 13-page short story takes place. There’s a mournful quality to Katchor’s work as he laments the loss of old city traditions, but there’s also an intense love for the architecture, services, and merchandise that have fallen out of fashion in favor of more modern amenities. That adoration makes Knipl’s nameless city come to life, and the book is a comprehensive tour of a setting caught in the middle of a major transition.

The design of Drawn & Quarterly titles is consistently remarkable, and Cheap Novelties’ trade dress is especially evocative. The front and back covers are made to look like a large piece of newspaper has been wrapped around the book, which makes it look like a cheaply wrapped gift being presented to the reader, and the inside covers are full of humorous ads for the objects that give the graphic novel its title. It’s a beautiful package, and Julius Knipl would appreciate the sturdiness and craftsmanship that has gone into the reprinting of his urban experience. [Oliver Sava]

It’s no surprise that Chicago stars in a good number of ghost stories, especially in the decades around the turn of the previous century. Between the Great Chicago Fire, the Columbian Exposition, the shipping and stockyards, Leopold and Loeb, and the way organized crime swayed a city right through Prohibition, the entire city is primed for ghost stories. Even a quick visit to Graceland Cemetery shows just how tightly packed Chicago’s former residents are with their own history. A fictionalized version of Graceland is the setting for Visitations #1 (self-published), a mixture of mystery and supernatural thriller that takes place in the heyday of organized crime in the city. It’s a fun mobsters versus monsters jaunt that, at over 30 pages and available for free online, offers more than the average issue.

Creator Scott Larson, who both writes and draws the comic, is a Chicago native, and it’s clear that the city is just as much a character as the people and inhuman horrors are. He starts off by providing context that, to those who have read Devil In The White City, is a nice reminder; to everyone else it gives Visitations just enough information to understand what they’re dealing with. The dialogue is appropriate for both the time and the profession most of the characters find themselves in, so there is a word or two that some readers might find objectionable. Overall though—including the gore and the monsters—Visitations is largely an all-ages book, which is a rarity for comics in this genre.

Larson’s art is strong and firmly rooted in reality, despite the subject matter. Sure, there are various creatures of the night and at one point a man’s head gets ripped off, but his characters and backgrounds are drawn realistically and his coloring style is crisp. There are some issues with the lettering, small inconsistencies or problems with text boxes in the sepia-toned opening pages, but Larson’s skill and enthusiasm for the project is easy to see. Distilled to its essence, Visitations #1 is a group of circus geeks with real magic trying to be Indiana Jones while both Al Capone’s goons and a mystery villain are hot on their heels. Larson is currently working on a second issue, and it’ll be fun to see where he takes his motley crew. [Caitlin Rosberg]

This first volume in the new Moebius Library, The World Of Edena (Dark Horse) represents the first concerted attempt to translate the French cartoonist’s body of work in nearly 30 years. This struck some as an odd choice for a beginning when it was first announced. After all, The World Of Edena is one of Moebius’ lesser-known series, and something like The Incal, The Airtight Garage, or Arzach would have been a higher profile choice. But upon reading The World Of Edena, the rationale behind that choice becomes clear. The whole of Moebius is laid bare, wrinkles and all. It features nearly all of the cartoonists aesthetic and intellectual concerns: gargantuan spaces, mystic crystals, and the play of the masculine and the feminine. Here, the natural and the artificial overlap and converge, and science fiction and fantasy are blended together.

The series, which was originally published as a series of French albums (slim, oversized bound editions) between 1985 and 2001, concerns a pair of mechanics, Stel and Atana. In an increasingly opaque sequence of episodic adventures, the two crash land on a desert planet, pilot a primordial space ship, and war in the wilderness for the fate of Edena, the titular paradise. If that sounds vague, that’s because the series itself is vague; published over the course of 16 years, its evolution and progress—narratively and visually—reflects Moebius’ evolution as an artist. In places it’s more lucid, in others it’s more dreamlike, and it’s riddled with blank spaces throughout. Similarly, Moebius’ lines grow and change; in sections like “Upon A Star,” they reflect a deep Tintin influence, while in others like “The Goddess” they epitomize the classic Moebius aesthetic, which marries clear, simple lines to imaginative designs and grimy textures. The book even offers a rare twofold glimpse of Moebius both at the height of his power and in his less satisfying and inconsistent late period—marked by thicker lines, self-reflexive designs, flatter colors, and shallower compositions.

But mostly The World Of Edena evinces the difficulty in talking about Moebius comics. They represent “pure comics,” a total convergence of the written and the drawn, and the joy in them is found in little flourishes and details, specific colors, or facial expressions. They employ narrative when felicitous, but they often shirk any familiar rhythms, structures, or expectations of and for narratives. Moebius writes his characters like complete and real people, but of whom we see very little. They feel confidently written, they feel distinct and singular, but they change in minor and even imperceptible ways. And the worlds Moebius creates are fantastical and rich; making manifest his incredible imagination, the French master crafts mammoth structures and incredibly detailed landscapes full of clothes, machines, and monsters that appear at once exotic, unique, and, at the same time, uncannily familiar. His thought balloons appear more like caption boxes, and his alien characters speak in unpronounceable symbols, visual puzzles, and meta-hierarchies of empty speech balloons. Like dreams, they beg to be interpreted but, paradoxically, speaking that interpretation aloud cheapens them. They exist to be experienced in a particular way, one that may be praised but can never exactly be shared. [Shea Hennum]