The Crackle of the Frost

Jorge Zentner and Lorenzo Mattotti. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (120p) ISBN 978-1-60699-543-3

This whimsical tale, set in the aftermath of a failed love affair, follows the self-indulgent, fanciful Samuel Darko as he attempts to come to grips with the breakup of his relationship with Alice, and his own pervasive fears about fatherhood and other matters. Mattotti’s brightly colorful, atomic-powered panels steal the show, and that’s a good thing considering that Zentner’s convoluted psychologizing feels like being forced to listen to someone else’s interminable dream, which, as Paul Bowles once noted, is never much fun. As Samuel flies to another country to find Alice, he becomes engrossed by a book about an invincible warrior named Liu. That and a few other subsequent parenthetical narratives are actually the most enjoyable and readable parts of the story, if only because Samuel is so relentlessly self-absorbed that any effort at empathy falls flat. Zentner’s writing serialized in Heavy Metal can sometimes be quite delightful, but Samuel’s neuroses and ruminations quickly wear thin over the course of this long, jumbled foray into one man’s oppressively unrelenting angst. Despite the depressing story line, Mattotti’s truly inspired lines, expressive forms, and wild visual imagination will captivate. (Sept.)

Oreimo, Vol. 1

Tsukasa Fushimi and Sakura Ikeda. Dark Horse, $10.99 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-59582-956-6

An average high schooler has a gorgeous 14-year-old younger sister, Kirino, in this manga. She despises him, until he finds out about her secret stash of geeky anime (most involving younger sisters, which raises disturbing implications). Then she turns him into a confidante, rebuilding their relationship on grounds that make him uncomfortable. Like the protagonist, readers may also find themselves uncomfortable, due to the focus on Kirino’s attractiveness, including panty and cleavage shots. She’s thrilled at having someone to share her fandom with, but he doesn’t get the appeal of the focus on cute little girls, and the obvious contrast with Kirino’s own behavior is sledge-hammered at the reader. At the same time, readers are encouraged to indulge their own “little sister” fantasies. The series is being promoted as “hilarious,” but there’s not much humor. Instead, the book requires a tolerance for both scenes of extreme discomfort and implications of incest. The manga is based on a light novel series and anime, which may explain why the art is basic, sparse, and uninspiring—except for the body parts, which are given loving focus. A thoroughly unpleasant work, it’s the kind of series that gives manga a bad reputation. (Sept.)

Resurrection Man, Vol. 1: Dead Again

Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Fernando Dagnino. DC, $14.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-4012-3529-1

Part of DC’s “New 52!” this so-so revival of an interesting character from the late ’90s crams a lot into a small package. Every time Mitch Shelly is killed, he returns to life with a different superpower and the compulsion to use that power for good, but has trouble completing that purpose—let alone sitting down to figure out why he’s been so blessed/cursed. Instead, he’s pursued by the glamorous but airheaded Body Double, a pair of murderous sociopaths who want to capture him, and by Suriel, Special Angel Taskforce, who wants to send his soul on to the afterlife. Dagnino’s art is an impressively amped-up version of Neal Adams’s realistic style, and the script by Abnett and Lanning is full of intriguing hints and unrealized potential. So far, however, the central character hasn’t quite come (back) to life. (Sept.)

Last Call, Vol. 2

Vasilis Lolos. Oni, $12.99 (160 p) ISBN 978-1-62010-083-7

Tumbling along with the velocity of a feverish nightmare, this volume continues the adventures of Alec and Sam, two teenagers who found themselves passengers on the Ghost Train, a locomotive hell-bent on a trip through time and space. Alec, having been thrown off the train because he doesn’t have a ticket, ages 10 years while he is being trained as a police detective; when he appears back on board, Sam has aged only a few hours, but has acquired a sentient, semianthropomorphic shadow, Mr. S. The two youths begin investigating the murders of their decidedly odd fellow passengers, roaming through the train’s unpredictably reshaping compartments while avoiding the menacing conductor. Lolos’s brush and pen artwork sometimes looks like exceptionally vigorous manga, sometimes resembles hyperdetailed primitive portraiture; his plotting and scripting are stunningly original. (Jan.)

The Crow Midnight Legends, Vol. 1: Dead Time

James O’Barr, John Wagner, and Alex Maleev. IDW, $17.99 (104p) ISBN 978-1-61377-275-1

Slain by the same bandits who raped his wife, raised from the dead a century later by his need for vengeance and the convenient proximity of his reincarnated murderers, Joshua carries out a brutal campaign of bloody retribution against the unrepentant renegades. As baffled cops try to make sense of the gruesome clues, the Native American revenant tracks down and judges each of his reborn killers, thugs who even now are targeting another woman. Just as Joshua’s foes were reborn having learned nothing, so Dead Time recapitulates The Crow without adding anything of value. O’Barr and Wagner revel in their simplistic tale of affronted macho self-regard; as with the original Crow story, women are not really people but merely counters over whom the significant characters squabble; crimes against women are terrible mainly because they expose the inability of the men to defend their possessions. Tediously violent, Dead Tales will appeal mostly to Crow completists. (Aug.)

Sailor Twain

Mark Siegel. Roaring Brook/First Second, $14.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-59643-636-7

In a work that calls to mind Conrad’s enigmatic short story “The Secret Sharer,” we follow the story of Captain Twain, a steamboat captain who discovers a wounded mermaid clinging to the side of his ship. Twain secretly brings her aboard, stows her in his cabin, and nurses her back to health, developing a strong attachment to her in the process. As he begins to learn her story, he recognizes that it may have a connection to correspondence between Dieudonné de Lafayette, the womanizing proprietor of the steamboat line, and writer C.G. Beaverton. Lafayette spends his days in endless conquest of the women who board his steamboat, which keeps him distracted enough that he doesn’t discover Twain’s secret stowaway. What readers eventually discover about the mermaid and her world brings about a series of dramatic events that lead to the story’s remarkable conclusion. Siegel’s strength as a storyteller is in knowing precisely how to balance the verbal and the visual, sometimes taking us for two or three pages on a wordless sequence that says so much more than dialogue ever could. As well, the manner in which he presents both the real and the fantastic shows his profound understanding of both worlds. (Oct.)

Finder: Talisman

Carla Speed McNeil. Dark Horse, $19.99 (96p) ISBN 978-1-61655-027-1

Since 1996, the Web comic Finder, by McNeil, winner of the Eisner and L.A. Times book prizes, has illuminated a futuristic world clearly descended from but different from ours. In this largely postliterate society, young Marcie’s life is transformed utterly by the gift and subsequent loss of a book she herself cannot read, Marcie becomes determined to master the art of reading despite the indifference and dismissive hostility most of those around her have toward static, physical books. A chance encounter with the lost book brings momentary disillusionment and inspiration to become a creator herself. Talisman focuses on that least promising of narrative potential, the quietly bookish future writer; but the doleful track record of other writerly protagonists proves misleading as McNeil transcends the usual limitations of the subgenre to create a genuinely engaging figure in young Marcie. Marcie’s betrayal at the hands of a work that cannot live up to her memory of it is skillfully handed; McNeil builds on this nearly universal experience to create an engaging and rewarding work, a demonstration of the skills that have won and will continue to win McNeil accolades, awards, and the admiration of her readers.(Oct.)

No Straight Lines

Edited by Justin Hall. Fantagraphics, $35 (312p) ISBN 978-1-60699-506-8

The challenge for any editor compiling an anthology of representative works from queer comics over a 40-year period rests on deciding who the volume is aimed at—the LGBT audience or a much wider one? Editor Hall guns for the latter, but without softening the edges that define the genre, and he’s quite successful. The majority of the works are autobiographical and lean toward humor, though serious topics are addressed—AIDS, coming-out trauma, discrimination—it’s all in here, as well as some cultural info less known outside the gay community, like Robert Kirby and D. Travis Scott’s explanation of the codes and etiquette for sex cruising at a porn shop. Among the stand-outs are Mary Wings’s tale of a lesbian in the 1920s; Howard Cruse’s story about a young gay man remembering the homophobia of his recently deceased uncle; Eric Orner’s memoir of a night in Tel Aviv; Dan Savage’s remembrance of his first time in drag as a child; and Eric Shanower’s eerie fable of teenage experimentation. All of these hit on concerns and experiences that cut to the heart of the human soul, not just the gay one. The section of Allison Bechdel’s work presents the standard for queer comics nowadays, offering humor and observations that draw an outside audience right into the culture. (Nov.)

Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics

Margeet de Heer. NBM (, $16.99 (120p) ISBN 978-1-56163-698-3

Former film student and theologian de Heer, already known for comics on subjects ranging from Buddhism to magic mushrooms, turns her gaze to Western philosophy. Beginning with a very general introduction to the topic, she fast-forwards through nearly 25 centuries of axiomatic reasoning, from Socrates, whose thoughts so endeared him to his fellow Athenians they made him drink poison; to the thinkers of post-Roman Europe, cunning but constrained by religion amid the ruins of a greater age; to Nietzsche, whose works fell victim after his death to editing by his anti-Semitic sister; and beyond. De Heer knows her stuff and possesses a charming style. The one flaw in her book is its brevity and the impossibility of cramming 2481 years of thought and logic into only 120 pages without misplacing vital details. This is less a primer than an appetizer. (Sept)

Illiterature (Story Minutes, Vol. 1)

Carol Lay. BOOM!, $14.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-60886-282-5

The page-length stories in this collection of Lay’s Story Minute newspaper strip provide readers with a window into her brilliant and original mind. In general, about Lay’s minute-long stories are 12-panel, modern-day fables that may or may not include elements of comedy, tragedy, realism, horror, science fiction, or dystopian fantasy. These stories, like the final line of a poem by Emily Dickinson, end on a note that threatens to leave the reader both disoriented and illuminated. Lay’s gift is in showing a profound understanding of basic human nature, not only about our frailties or petty jealousies, but about the deep structures of the human psyche. In the introduction, Kim Deitch warns readers not to read Illiterature from cover to cover, since the stories “overflow with ideas” and “if not taken in small doses...can be addictive.” This is sound advice for the prospective reader, since the pleasures of such an addiction will not come without the pains: the stories are too honest, too complex, and too full of insight to allow the reader to feel anything other than dizzy if he or she strings too many of them together. (Oct.)

The Oatmeal: How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You

Matthew Inman. Andrews McMeel, $14.99 trade paper (132p) ISBN 978-1-4494-1024-7

If nothing else, the Internet proves that people have an infinite capacity for guffaws brought on by pictures of cats. Given that reality, the Oatmeal’s collection of Web comics about cats is a certain crowd pleaser. Since fans of the genre never tire of jokes about cats pouncing on you in the night, batting you in the face, chasing imaginary creatures, wanting their tummies rubbed, and other proof that cats are crazy, cat humor appears to be above criticism. Inman’s style is simple and populist and asks little of the reader, and is effective in inducing laughter in bored office workers. The Oatmeal is itself on online sensation and Inman a Web comics superstar, making this a surefire winner (Oct.)

On the Ropes

James Vance and Dan E. Burr. Norton, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-06220-5

The subtitle on the cover of this sequel to the Eisner-winning Kings in Disguise reads, “A Novel.” The telling absence of the word “graphic,” paired with the quality of the storytelling herein, indicate that Vance and Burr’s ambition is to craft a Depression-era story as layered and encompassing as the classics of Steinbeck or James M. Cain--and they are successful. In 1930s, teenager Fred Bloch works as an assistant to circus escape artist Gordon Corey. Bloch’s checkered past and Corey’s unstable reputation make them mismatched partners who are nevertheless mutually dependent. Blooming romance and labor unrest provide the external dramas against which Bloch struggles to understand himself and his era as he moves toward adulthood. Meticulous research is reflected on every page: the economics and social dynamics of the era, the challenges faced by organized labor, the psychology of alcoholism, and the politics of the Works Progress Administration, among other topics, are clearly outlined by both writer Vance and artist Burr. The black-and-white art stylistically reflects the clean outlines and emphasis on faces found in classic EC comics. This informative, melodramatic story paints a vivid picture of a tumultuous era that fostered a political divisiveness that will be all too familiar to contemporary readers. (Mar.)

Grendel Omnibus, Vol. 1: Hunter Rose.

Matt Wagner. Dark Horse, $24.99 (600p) ISBN 978-1-59582-893-4

Bestselling author and socialite Hunter Rose is secretly Grendel, an expert assassin and criminal mastermind who is hell-bent on running crime in 1980s New York. His nemesis is Argent the wolf, a hero of mysterious origins who often does more harm than good as he works with New York's police to try and stop Grendel's criminal machinations. The very first story in this massive collection covers Grendel's entire rise and fall, leaving the rest of the collection to explore selected episodes in greater detail. Wagner doesn't dwell on Grendel's cleverness and is deft at experimentation, as he shows by dismantling and reassembling his characters. The collection is full of straightforward stories with tasty last-minute twists. Wagner also explores Grendel's world through the eyes of those who live under his shadow. As with most collections of this size, some stories work better than others, but the variety makes this a thorough and satisfying tour of Wagner's signature work. (Aug.)

Taxes, The Tea Party, And Those Revolting Rebels

Stan Mack. NBM (, $14.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-56163-697-6

This re-issue of cartoonist and social chronicler Mack's thoroughly researched 1994 history of the American Revolution offers a spectacular, unvarnished account that runs counter to the mythology-as-history often taught in American schools. Mack's re-telling avoids speechifying and presents realistic motivations for the rebels. It also manages to depict the towering figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers as mere men, some of whom were not necessarily as commanding or even competent as legend would have it. For those raised on the hyperbolic children's book versions of the people and events surrounding our nation's independence, this is a strongly recommended work whose "cartoony" art style works well with a narrative that openly addresses the roles played by women, slaves, and Native Americans in the twenty-eight year struggle and its aftermath. (Sept.)

Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work)

Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr. Abrams Comic Arts, $19.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-8109-8839-2

Economics is terrifying. Even if one doesn't consider the bleak state of the current world economy, just attempting to create a mental picture of the complex systems of market forces, government agencies, and human psychologies that drive the economy can be like trying to visualize a map of the universe. But Goodwin and illustrator Burr argue that the economy is easy enough to understand if you break it down into bite-sized chunks, roughly the dimensions of a comic panel. They tell the story of the economy starting with its first documented examination by Adam Smith and working their way up to 2011. That devotion to thoroughness makes this a dense yet quite accessible read. Goodwin brilliantly contextualize economic theories with historical narrative, while Burr's simple but elegant illustration employs classical techniques like caricaturing politicians and symbolizing big businesses (as a gleeful factory) to help the reader visualize difficult concepts. If the book has a prime message, it's that the economy is quite understandable and when things go wrong, the effort and thinking of a whole society must be applied to bring everything back into line. (Sept.)

Adventures in Cartooning: Christmas Special
James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost. Roaring Brook/First Second, $9.99 paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-59643-730-2

Kids are asking for high-tech gifts instead of old-fashioned ones, and Santa is not all that happy about it (“Instead of toys, we elves write code,” a helper tells him. “Then we connect to the server... and upload!”). Santa hits on the idea of a Christmas comic book, enlisting the help of a certain elf and knight (seen in the two previous Adventures in Cartooning books). Along the way, readers get an uproarious lesson in what makes a great—or at least salable—holiday story (“This book is as good as the Scrooge—and the Grinch!!!” boasts the knight. “I don’t know about that, but it’ll do in a pinch!!!” responds the elf) and how comics are made. As smart as it is funny—and it’s very funny. Ages 4–up. (Sept.)