Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story

Mat Johnson and Simon Gane, DC/Vertigo, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-4012-2160-7

Set in New Orleans in the first days after Hurricane Katrina, Dark Rain--much like Johnson's lauded 2008 graphic novel Incognegro--uses the trappings of gritty crime fiction to explore deeper issues of race in America. Dabny, a decorated soldier and former customs officer, languishes in a Houston halfway house after being convicted of taking a bribe. Desperate to raise child-support money, he agrees to ferry his bunkmate Emmit into New Orleans's submerged Lower 9th Ward, where Emmit plans to rob his former employer, the Banque de Congo Square. The pair soon runs afoul of (metaphor alert) Dark Rain, a corrupt private security firm led by Dabny's former commanding officer, and some pretty standard caper-movie action ensues. Johnson's dialogue is frequently witty and incisive, and the book's view of the utter failure of public services in the city's poor neighborhoods and at the New Orleans Convention Center cuts to the marrow. Unfortunately, the whole affair is dragged down by the familiarity of its somewhat tacked-on central plot. And while Gane's slightly cartoonish style enlivens the book's moments of wry humor, a neo-noir caper story with a healthy dose of social commentary demands a certain gravity that's missing. (Aug.)

The Search for Smilin’ Ed!

Kim Deitch, Fantagraphics, $16.99 paper (162p) ISBN 9781606993248

Originally serialized in the late ‘90s, this cartwheeling shaggy-dog story begins, like a lot of metafiction, with the semblance of reality: Deitch narrates the beginning as the tale of what happened when he looked into the fate of the host of one of his favorite TV shows from his youth, “Smilin’ Ed’s Gang.” But by the time a frog demon reanimates a 19th-century French peasant whose brains it has eaten, it’s fairly clear that Deitch is making stuff up. The fun of the book is the way it constantly darts back and forth across the line between genuine show-business lore (a favorite Deitch theme) and delirious whole-cloth invention. There are stories within stories, unreliable explainers, secret passageways that lead from one part of the tale to another. Deitch’s artwork often seems stiff and busy--there’s scarcely a patch of blank space or foursquare page layout in the entire book--but it’s also utterly confident, building on the stylistic gestures of both the underground-comics scene that launched his career and the classic animation that inspired his talking-animal characters. For this edition, Deitch has added some new material, including an epilogue that throws a few more loops into his Byzantine personal mythology. (June)

BB Wolf and the 3 LPs

J.D. Arnold and Rich Koslowski, Top Shelf, $12.95 paper (96p) ISBN 9781603090292

BB has enough troubles to make any wolf sing the blues. A poor Mississippi Delta farmer in the mean old ‘20s, BB has to scrape by to support his wife and cubs, a job made no easier by the pigs (meant literally) who keep harassing the beaten-down wolves, and threatening to take his property. So he drinks, and belts out the blues at night in a honkytonk. Just when it looks like things might get better, tragedy intervenes, and BB is forced to leg it out of town--but not before taking revenge on just one of the Three Little Pigs who brought his family to ruin. Arnold’s debut young-adult graphic novel pushes the envelope for that audience in terms of slashing, bloody violence, but also tries to pair it with thoughtful commentary. Aiming for a Jim Crow-era take on Maus, in which blacks are wolves and whites are pigs, Arnold’s fast-paced story (with energetic artwork by Koslowski (The King) doesn’t quite do the subject justice, but fills it with enough action and gutbucket blues to keep readers interested. (May)