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September 4, 2009

R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics (D&Q) essentially repeats one joke across its 64 pages, but at least it’s a good joke. Over the past 20 years, Sikoryak has popped up in comics anthologies like Raw and Drawn & Quarterly with superbly crafted, sublimely conceptual strips that combine classic cartoons and superheroes with classic literature. Little Lulu and Tubby star in an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter; Bazooka Joe braves Dante’s Inferno, and so on. Sikoryak’s mimicry of artists like Jim Davis and Winsor McKay is uncanny, and when he combines concepts smartly, he finds ways to comment on both halves of his source material. In “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown,” for example, Sikoryak slaps Franz Kafka on top of Charles Schulz, and when a cockroach-bodied Charlie Brown sighs into the darkness that “I’ve become a burden on the family… nothing satisfies my desires,” the content and tone of the strip isn’t that far removed from an actual Peanuts comic. Like the best mash-ups, Sikoryak’s mini-masterpieces reveal new interpretations of the work the artist is sampling… A-

The first volume of David Petersen’s epic-in-the-making Mouse Guard introduced a medieval society of mice and sketched out their intricate ruling structure and a growing internal dissent. But the problem with Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 is that it’s heavy on portent, light on story—it practically begged to be rendered in a medium like prose or film, which would allow Petersen to fit in more pieces of the mosaic he’s assembling. The same can’t be said of volume two, Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (Archaia). By tackling a much simpler plot—following a small group of mice as they get separated while on a courier mission—Petersen allows himself more room for dialogue and scene-setting, and develops his mice and the scattered townships they inhabit far more fully than he did in the action-packed first volume. Mouse Guard still feels like am imaginative concept in need of a bigger canvas, but with Winter 1152, it’s starting to seem like comics can be that canvas. Readers are just going to have to be patient while Petersen rolls it all out… B+

For a different kind of mouse tale from another artist partial to epic fantasy, try Jeff Smith’s Little Mouse Gets Ready (Toon Books), a slim, simple children’s book about a tiny rodent who talks himself through each stage of putting on his clothes. Make no mistake: Little Mouse Gets Ready is for kids—little kids. It’s ostensibly a Sunday newspaper comic strip enlarged and stretched out to fill 25 pages, with a low-impact gag and a bunch of cute drawings and dialogue. But Smith hasn’t drawn anything this purely fun and cartoony since the early days of Bone, and this is the kind of book that comics-friendly parents won’t mind reading to their children any time they ask. And they should ask a lot… A-

The second book of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series is a lot less surprising than the first, now that its characters are deeply enmeshed in a fantasy world, and there’s less weird mythology to unpack and discover. Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse (Scholastic) focuses less on discovery and more on the central character’s moral battle, as her magical amulet tells her over and over again that she needs to give it complete control in order to access its full power and save her ailing mother. The book’s seeming antagonist, a grouchy elf prince, has his own moral struggles to face, as he realizes he doesn’t really approve of the way his father the king is handling things. Once again, this book is accessible to younger readers, but dark enough for older ones, with beautiful art for all ages. Like the Flight anthologies that Kibuishi curates, it focuses as much on wild visual creativity and a rich palette as on storytelling… B+

Virtually everything about The Big Khan (NBM) is low-key, from Neil Kleid’s conversational-drama plot to Nicolas Cinquegrani’s pared-down, realistic black-and-white line art to the crises its characters endure. But that seems like the best (and least needlessly melodramatic) way to tackle an intriguingly personal plot that easily could have gone over-the-top. At the funeral of a rabbi, a beloved family man and community leader, an outsider shows up and reveals that the deceased wasn’t even Jewish; he was a con artist who used to put up a phony charity front to bilk Jews out of donation money, but something about the lifestyle appealed to him, and he went “straight”—at least so far as he could, as a non-Jewish practicing rabbi. The news devastates his devout wife, who feels her married life has been a lie, and does worse to his rabbi son, who questions his own religion, but it has very different effects on the man’s daughter and younger son, who question some basic tenets of their own. Klied’s story is intimate and mature about relationships, both interpersonal and between people and their beliefs, and he resists any urge to underline or spell out what’s going on in his characters’ lives; Cinquegrani’s facial expressions and the characters’ actions do all the talking. This is a beautifully meditative story, and readers don’t have to be Jewish (or pretend to be Jewish) to get absorbed… A-

From the ’60s to the ’80s, Cuban-born artist Antonio Prohias drew the dialogue-free gag cartoon “Spy Vs. Spy” for Mad magazine, following two pointy-nosed secret agents as they took turns killing each other with elaborate contraptions. Throughout his run, Mad put out paperback Spy Vs. Spy collections that became bestsellers in drugstores and gas stations around the world. Random House imprint Watson-Guptill has now reprinted three of those collections under new names, as Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!, Masters Of Mayhem, and Missions Of Madness. The name changes are only one of the series’ disappointing aspects. The books are also overpriced (especially compared to the budget-priced originals) and light on background information, and frankly, though Prohias’ animation-like gags are clever and amusing even now, they’re best read a few at a time, not in big chunks. Anyone who wants to keep some Spy Vs. Spy handy would be better served picking up the still-in-print Complete Casebook, which contains more strips and more research material, for not that much more money… All three: C

Like Antonio Prohias, cartoonist/animator R.O. Blechman specializes in doing more with less. Prohias’ Spy Vs. Spy works without dialogue; Blechman works with tiny squiggles that represent kings and commoners alike. Talking Lines (D&Q) collects more than 50 years of Blechman stories, ranging from the whimsical to the pointedly political, in a handsomely designed hardcover that resembles the low-print-run cartoon collections of the mid-20th century. (Naturally, it comes with an introduction by Seth.) Blechman’s more recent work for The Nation and The New York Times is a little too blunt, lacking the charm of his earlier stories, but Talking Lines still has plenty of worthy pieces, including the 1968 story “The Emperor’s New Armor” (a charming, effective parable about military spending), and the previously unpublished “Georgie” (a heartbreaking meditation on parental anxiety). When Blechman is on his game, there are few cartoonists better at injecting the full range of human emotion into a cramped, unsteady line… B+

The prolific Jeff Lemire makes his first foray into writing and drawing an ongoing series with Sweet Tooth #1 (Vertigo), an off-kilter post-apocalyptic story about an antler-headed mutant named Gus on the run from society’s remaining non-mutant population. The first issue sets up Gus’s flight from a remote cabin in the woods into the world at large, and establishes that in spite of the comic’s fantastical trappings, this will be a typical Lemire story, about a gentle provincial soul exposed for the first time to something outside his scope of experience. Sweet Tooth is a grabber from the get-go, and though the situation is a little overfamiliar, Lemire retains his gift for imbuing ordinary moments with a sense of wonder, such as when Gus encounters an actual deer, and doesn’t know what to make of his look-alike. In his recent work, Lemire has often been better at introducing ideas than at developing them satisfactorily, so an open-ended series like Sweet Tooth ought to be right up his alley… B

The big-screen 28 Days Later was basically Day Of The Triffids with frenetic, diseased psychotics standing in for killer plants, but director Danny Boyle got a lot of mileage out of the intimacy that handheld video provides. That intimacy is gone in 28 Days Later #1 (Boom! Studios), a new series that looks to bridge the gap between the first film and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later. The first issue opens with Selena, one of the few characters to survive the original movie, in a survivor’s camp, suffering from a bad case of the blues. A reporter asks her help in going back to London (via Scotland) for a firsthand look at the crisis, and for reasons that aren’t yet clear, Selena goes along for the ride. While there are enough unanswered questions to attract fans of the movies, stripped of Boyle’s visual and stylistic panache, it’s hard to avoid the story’s derivative nature; it’s Aliens this time, instead of Triffids, with another heroine convinced to return to the nightmare only she understands completely. Still, Michael Alan Nelson’s script moves briskly, and Declan Shalvey’s art is appropriately grim. Even if the plot doesn’t get any more original, it should make for a gory ride… B

Part of the fun of watching Brad Bird’s The Incredibles was trying to imagine what would happen to the heroes after the end credits; the family team dynamic seemed to come from some perfect Kirby-esque world where comics never got too grim for their own good. So it’s no surprise the The Incredibles: Family Matters (Boom! Studios), a new collected series by Mark Waid, is a blast to read. The film’s kid-friendly vibe translates well to the page, with bright art by Marcio Takara that’s cartoony without sacrificing depth. Mr. Incredible is experiencing a power slump, and he’s having a hard time keeping up with his wife and kids during their crime-fighting adventures. What’s causing him to lose his strength? And does it have anything to do with their new friends next door? Family Matters isn’t as inventive or thematically dark as the movie, and the basic storyline would’ve fit easily into any of a dozen ’80s cartoon shows. But it’s well-told, and the details—like the robot villain Futur1on and his de-evolution bombs—are charming. Hopefully there’s more where this came from… B+

Author Thomas E. Sniegoski is best known for competent-but-uninspiring work in genre-fiction series, from the Fallen series to some Buffy The Vampire Slayer novelizations to his own Remy Chandler stories. But Dark Horse gave him the assignment to produce The Satan Factory (Dark Horse), the first of what appears to be a series of pulp-styled novels featuring the beloved vigilante character Lobster Johnson, and he comes through with flying colors. Un-illustrated (save for a very period-accurate pulp-style cover drawing), The Satan Factory nonetheless nicely evokes the moody, stylish supernatural action of the Hellboy universe with its memorable villain, Dr. Jonas Chapel, and it skillfully apes the pulp format with its tight, economical prose—a virtue lacking in some of Sniegoski’s other work. He manages to avoid spoiling Lobster Johnson’s mystique through overexposure; instead, much of the narrative is driven by a new member of the vigilante’s crime-fighting team, a neat trick that’s both evocative of classic pulp adventure and useful in creating a consistent storytelling voice that doesn’t kill off the mystery. Few non-Hellboy fans will bother to pick this up, but it’s a good, solid mystery-adventure in the Shadow mode… B+

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are one of the most high-profile writer/artist teams in comics today, but their work can be wildly inconsistent. At its best, it combines Loeb’s ability to fish around for new psychological angles on old characters with Sale’s brutally stylish art style; at its worst, it finds Loeb lazily reveling in violence and Sale phoning it in via what almost seems like self-parody. Luckily, Hulk: Gray (Marvel) is far more the former than the latter. A Year One-style re-imagining of the origin of the gamma-powered brute, Gray—completed a few years ago, but now receiving a deluxe hardbound reissue treatment—features a clever narrative structure, an interesting framing device, and some powerfully imagined, if occasionally over-the-top, psychological interpretations of the early days of the Hulk, and Loeb manages for the most part to rein in his more excessive tendencies and keep the story focused and tight. Sale, similarly, hasn’t seemed this engaged with a story in years, and really pulls out the stops, giving the story of those first few terrifying days an almost nightmarish quality. Gray goes a bit off the rails at the end, but it’s still an enjoyable ride most of the way… B

Finally available in an affordable softcover, The Fantastic Worlds Of Frazetta Vol. 1 (Image) may get a chance to find its audience. Previously released in a prohibitively expensive hardcover, the book disappointed some diehards because it contains very little work by the legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta; instead, it features a quartet of stories inspired by some of his most famous paintings, written and drawn by modern comics pros like Steve Niles and Josh Ortega. It’s understandable why some people might have felt cheated; Frazetta fans naturally expected more of their man, and straight-up comics fans were stuck with an expensive anthology packed with stories that weren’t good enough to justify the cost. With the lower price tag, the stories—which aren’t spectacular, but are fairly enjoyable (especially Rick Remender and Peter Berting’s enjoyably goofy “Creatures,” where a demon-hunting Teddy Roosevelt leads his Rough Riders into action against an array of supernatural beasties)—may bring in an audience which can appreciate them on their own merits… C+

Most of the time, Tatsuya Ishida’s daily webcomic Sinfest isn’t particularly revelatory or insightful about sex, art, or religion, but it’s irreverent and playful about those three subjects, and it crosses lines that few cartoonists would dare toe. Equally influenced by manga, graffiti culture, and standardized four-panel newspaper-comics, it holds to the black-and-white newspaper format (with, lately, giant gorgeously rendered color blowouts on Sundays), but tackles subjects that would shock the bifocals off most newspaper-comics readers: God, Jesus, Satan, and Buddha show up regularly, along with a couple of diminutive religious fanboys who follow them around; porn, drugs, booze, and sex are regular topics. And yet the strip generally has a cheery, permissive, barely PG-rated feel; it’s more about the sheer amusement value of humanity’s darker appetites than about the authentically bad places those appetites can lead them. Dark Horse’s handsome Sinfest: Volume One starts the series at the beginning, when the art looked suspiciously like Berke Breathed’s, and the humor and rhythm did as well. (A brief bonus section at the end showcases an even cruder earlier version Ishida did for his school newspaper at UCLA.) Over the course of this volume—the first year and a half of strips, from January 2000 to August 2001—Ishida’s art style develops and improves rapidly as he introduces most of the characters that still fill out the strip to date, and launches some running gags that still crop up. In that sense, Sinfest is a lot like a standard syndicated strip: It’s mostly just comfortable variations on a few well-established themes. It’s just that those themes are unusual in the field, and treated with a lightheartedness and an admirable drafting skill that would make each strip a blast to look at even if the stories were Family Circus levels of lame. B