Ryan Inzana. Houghton Mifflin, $19.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-547-25269-8

Inzana uses his talents for expressive nonfiction—last seen in the comics adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working—and to investigate cultural identity through a mix of fiction and documentary. Ichiro, raised in America by his Japanese mother, is left with his grandfather in Japan during his mother’s business trip. Though they’ve rarely been together, the visit is treated as an opportunity to bond and a way for grandfather to introduce Ichiro to the history and culture of his homeland through a series of day trips. Inzana fashions his literary hybrid by moving between grandfather’s lectures about the sites and Ichiro’s personal drama, bringing the wider strokes of history and religion into a personal realm. Framed by a mythological backdrop, Ichiro’s story collides with fantastic tales of Shinto gods and goddesses that begin to engulf his own and offer a reason to fight his way back to a life of day trips and lectures with grandpa. We are all the summation of our personal and cultural histories, and Ichiro reveals how these strands twist together in any of us. Through it all, Inzana mixes the mystery with the matter-of-fact in his lively artwork, creating a mood of enlightenment throughout and offering an insight into Japanese culture with a maximum of imagination. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 12/09/2011

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White
Lila Quintero Weaver. Univ. of Alabama, $19.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-8173-5714-6

The deep South of the early 1960s was a world with a deep division between black and white, a time explored in this debut autobiographical graphic novel. When the Quinteros, immigrants from Argentina of mixed Indian and Spanish extraction, settle in Marion, Ala., they fit on neither side of that divide. Lila is at first anxious to blend in, refusing to speak Spanish in public or reveal that her family’s breakfasts don’t consist of grits and bacon. The turning point for both Lila and American society comes in 1965, as the civil rights movement inspires African-Americans to demand their voting rights. A brutal, bloody crackdown on an assembly in the Marion town square ensues, resulting in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death spurs the march from Selma to Montgomery. As a witness to injustices and cruelty, and influenced by her pastor father, Lila becomes more reconciled to her differences and hostile to overt and systemic racism in Marion. In beautiful gray-shaded drawings, Weaver depicts the reality of the segregated and newly integrated South and her struggle to position herself as an ally to her black classmates, only to find that it’s a path fraught with pitfalls from both sides of the divide. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 12/09/2011

Who Is Jake Ellis?
Nathan Edmonson and Tonci Zonjic. Image (Diamond, dist.), $16.99 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-60706-459-6

Edmonson and Zonjic ask a simple question: who is Jake Ellis? The answer is anything but simple. Finding the answer is the responsibility of a mercenary spy named Jon Moore, who must come to terms with Jake’s identity if he is to understand anything about himself. Ever since escaping the “Facility,” Jon has had Jake Ellis as an invisible asset. Literally. No one can see or hear Jake but Jon. In fact, Jon can’t be sure that Jake isn’t just an extension of his own unconscious. Jon gets into tight fixes, but Jake seems able to get him out of anything. In order to really know who Jake Ellis is, however, Jon will need to avoid a whole host of people who are after him and return to the Facility to get to the bottom of things. It would be easy to take a concept like this and turn it into something that comes off as mere contrivance, but Edmonson crosses Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity with Conrad’s The Secret Sharer and gives his story a darkness superbly captured in Zonjic’s artwork. The narrative moves quickly, but the action is never mindless. This all adds up to a story with real depth yet still a high-octane thriller. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 12/09/2011

Jonah Hex: Bury Me in Hell
Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and various. DC, $17.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1401232498

Gray and Palmiotti collaborate with several artists in a series of independent tales of uneven quality in this compilation of horror western tales. The stories take place at various points in the career of Old West bounty hunter Jonah Hex, who is known for having the devil’s own luck, and vary in tone, with the redemption story, “Snowblind,” lifting up the bleaker tales, “Bury Me in Hell,” in which Hex hunts and tortures a necrophiliac pedophile, and “Casket Canyon,” in which a widow feeds her starving children the flesh of dead men. The art also varies dramatically in style; Fiona Staples (“Casket Canyon”) uses a realistic style that lends horror to the sunken faces of the starving characters, while Jeff Lemire’s (“Old Man”) stylized version of Hex’s mangled face produces a touching moment as Hex buries the father who forsook him. “Weird Western,” the final story, relies most heavily on the rest of the Hex mythology, jumping in and out of Hex’s time line. The collection will appeal most to those already familiar with Hex, but those new to the series may be intrigued enough to seek out more. (Dec.)

Reviewed on: 12/09/2011

Spy vs. Spy Omnibus

Antonio Prohias. DC/Mad, $49.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4012-3237-5

Inhabiting the innards of Mad magazine for some 50 years, “Spy vs. Spy” is the quintessential comic strip: a deceptively simple idea repeated ad infinitum. In the case of Cuban dissident Prohias, who manufactured his two aberrant operatives at the height of the cold war and infected them with his signature brand of demented nihilism, the exercise was pure political metaphor. Two clones, one white, one black, concoct impossibly complicated methods of killing each other, for no other purpose than, well, killing each other. Exercising an imagination that is truly boundless in its Machiavellian articulations, the opposing spies, like a pair of good soldiers from competing blocks, are forever at war, yet forever the same—ideologically antithetical, perhaps, but in the end perfectly interchangeable. This omnibus edition, which features all 241 strips Prohias did for Mad as well as some unpublished art and illuminating commentary, does full justice to his diabolical creations. Prohias’s graphic style (which only grew more dense and lush over the years) and nervy lines are perfectly rendered, and the compilation also showcases other artists who worked on the strip after Prohias’s death in 1998. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 12/05/2011

Pogo, Vol. 1 of the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips: “Through the Wild Blue Wonder”

Walt Kelly, foreword by Jimmy Breslin. Fantagraphics, $39.99 (360p) ISBN 978-1-56097-869-5

This exceptional first volume of the collected adventures of Pogo Possum should remind readers of the substantial legacy left behind by Kelly. It features Kelly’s daily strips (1949–1950), Sunday funnies (1950), and even his earlier New York Star dailies (1948–1949). The volume is beautifully put together, including excellent insights into Kelly and his work, and features a foreword by Jimmy Breslin and a concluding section, “Swamp Talk,” featuring annotations by comics historian R.C. Harvey. One only needs to get a short way into the adventures of Pogo and his pals in Okefenokee Swamp to recognize the impact Pogo has had on so many cartoonists, with Gary Trudeau, Jeff Smith, and Bill Watterson among the most obvious. With Pogo Possum and supporting characters Albert Alligator, Howland Owl, and Churchy LaFemme, Kelly was able to blend hilarious humor, exceptional storytelling, keen political satire, and brilliant wordplay into a strip that could be appreciated both by children and adults. The more one reads this volume, the clearer picture one has of Kelly as comics’ answer to Lewis Carroll, with Alice having changed into a possum and left Wonderland behind for a swamp. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 12/05/2011

Batman: Noel

Lee Bermejo. DC, $22.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-4012-3213-9

What happens when Batman gets a bad cold? Does Gotham and its perpetually overwhelmed police force fall to pieces? Bermejo’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer to that question puts the Dark Knight—who, by the way, doesn’t seem to believe he can get sick, no matter how bad the cough claims otherwise—into a scenario that’s mostly A Christmas Carol, with a dash of It’s a Wonderful Life. A crusty, streetwise narrator follows the story’s Bob Cratchit stand-in, a low-level crook who Batman is willing to dangerously dangle as bait—no matter that Bob has a Tiny Tim–like son at home. Ghosts of Batman’s more lighthearted past swing by, whether it’s the memory of Robin or an all-too-real Catwoman, who doesn’t get why he won’t play with her like he once did. The moral hangs heavy over Bermejo’s snowy, painterly Gotham, with Batman as the grizzled old vigilante trying to remember why he got into this game in the first place, and whether it’s even worth it. As a follow-up to the bestselling Joker graphic novel that he painted, Bermejo has created a clever, thoughtful piece of work, and one of the more satisfying Batman one-offs. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 12/05/2011

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, Vol. 1

Edited by Nate Cosby. Archaia, $19.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-936393-24-4

A cozy fire, a craggy-faced old gabber who likes nothing more than to spin yarns at his dog (who talks, with a mean streak of sarcasm), and a beautiful mélange of fabulist tales make this volume a glorious storehouse of fantasy. Inspired by the short-lived Jim Henson show of the late 1980s, which spun a kind of darkly cackling Grimmsian wonder rare for the time, this anthology presents some of the year’s richest, most textured graphic narratives. The sources are widely varied, as are the treatments. Jeff Parker’s high-stepping lark, “Old Fire Dragaman,” has fun with an Appalachian trickster fable, or Jack tale, enlivened by Tom Fowler’s vivid illustrations. A French story about Puss in Boots gets a beautifully ghostly rendering by Marjorie Liu and Jennifer L. Meyer. Katie Cook’s feathery and poetic take on the Japanese folk tale “The Crane Wife” is a treat, as well. Pride of place, though, is given to the final piece, the comically overwrought horror story “The Witch Baby,” based on an unproduced teleplay co-written by the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella with art by Ronan Cliquet. (Dec.)

Reviewed on: 12/05/2011

Blabber Blabber Blabber, Everything: Vol. 1

Lynda Barry. Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95 (180p) ISBN 978-1-77046-052-2

Barry (What It Is; Picture This) has emerged as a 21st-century creative guru, a teacher with a knack for helping students find their inner spark. But in the late 1970s and ’80s, she was a young cartoonist with a pocketful of underground influences and her own inimitable perspective on the world. In this first volume of an omnibus of her work, Barry introduces the collection of comics strips produced between 1978 and 1981 with drawings copied (her word) from artists like Dr. Seuss and R. Crumb, as well as what she calls the “sweeter line” of late ’70s advertising illustrations. Barry’s distinction between the “bitter” and the “sweet” informs the three strips collected—the scratchy-lined “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” a collection of almost random observations and non sequiturs that sometimes veer into the incomprehensible; the ethereal line of “Two Sisters,” about sweet-faced identical twins with an innocent but slanted view on life; and “Girls and Boys,” with its chaotic panels and geometric figures, which focuses on the intense absurdity of relationships between the sexes. Barry’s touch as a creator is already established even in this early stage, her talent for creating child characters, penchant for encouraging the reader to engage creatively, and touches of surrealism impelling a creative force that cannot be categorized. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 11/28/2011

Kill Shakespeare, Vol. 2: The Blast of War

Connor McCreery, Anthony Del Col, and Andy Belanger. IDW, $19.99 trade paper (148p) ISBN 978-1-61377-025-2

A sweeping fantasy of magic, war, betrayal, and love is set in a world where Shakespeare’s characters dwell and Shakespeare himself is an absent god struggling with a heavy conscience. The second volume builds to the climactic finale of Hamlet’s quest to find the creator-god Shakespeare and return peace to a land torn apart by an evil army led by Richard III and Lady Macbeth. Joined by love interest Juliet, the warrior Othello, the wise fool Falstaff, and the spy Iago, Hamlet has built an army of rebels, the prodigals, who hold off their enemies while he searches for their creator. But even victory comes at a cost as friends and foes die in a great final battle. Belanger’s art rises to the challenge of this epic scale and creates truly impressive visuals. McCreery and Del Sol’s story has the unfortunate problem of inviting comparisons to Shakespeare. The number of characters included goes beyond the book’s ability to comfortably fit them all in. The story is more closely related to modern fantasy tales of great armies struggling as a prophesied hero leads events toward a massive last fight. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 11/28/2011


Geoff Johns, Andy Kubert, and Sandra Hope. DC, $22.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-4012-3337-2

Centering on Barry Allen—aka the Flash, “the fastest man alive”—this collection of the five-part miniseries follows Barry’s realization that his world is not as he has known it, with certain details being “off.” His long-dead mother is alive, many of his superpowered colleagues are different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and he himself is without his speedster abilities. As Barry unravels the mystery, he discovers there’s a limited window of time in which to set things right, or else the alternate reality will permanently supplant his own. This series was created as an “event” intended to shake up DC’s continuity, supposedly to attract new readers, resulting in the controversial “New 52” imprint-wide reboot. All of that sprang from this Johns-scripted miniseries (with solid artwork by Kubert) that starts out with much to interest both new and old readers. Unfortunately, it collapses under its own weight about halfway through and, along with resetting things to the current “New 52” status quo, results in a narrative hash, with too many plots and character points. The result is of interest mostly to see from whence the “New 52” sprang, and its events will most likely be glossed over with the next inevitable company-wide “fix.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 11/28/2011

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes

Carl Barks. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-60699-474-0

One of comics revered masters gets a fresh new reprinting worthy of his work and accessible to kids. Known as “The good duck artist,” Barks toiled for Disney in anonymity throughout the 1940s and ’50s while creating such great characters as Scrooge McDuck and Gyro Gearloose. This volume finds him at a creative peak, combining the bold adventuring of Tintin with the wisely cynical view of human weakness of John Stanley. In the title story Donald and his three nephews travel deep into a magical Andes region to find the source of the square eggs scientists covet—a sense of awe complemented by a knowing satire of stuffy conformism represented by the “squares.” The best stories, however, set up Donald and his nephews as foes, a simple motivation comically escalating until the only result is total disaster. Donald is an everyman of frustration whose life is one big Chinese finger trap—the harder he fights, the harder the world fights back. In “The Sunken Yacht,” a scheme to raise a sunken treasure with Ping-Pong balls (which inspired real-life scientists) is thwarted by greed and Scrooge’s penny-pinching. Despite the dark undertones, the comic expressions and dialogue is still laugh-out-loud funny. A wonderful project that should put Barks’s name in front of new generations of admirers. (Dec.)

Reviewed on: 11/28/2011

What the Hell Are You Doing? The Essential David Shrigley

David Shrigley. Norton, $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-08247-0

The “gallery-type” comic art of acclaimed fine artist Shrigley, deceptively simple yet mind-blowing in its seditiousness and perspective-altering lexicography, goes where many have ventured: Saul Steinberg, Raymond Pettibon, William Powhida, and Maira Kalman among them. These artists all use text, not as a design element but for the value of text itself. Sometimes, the text integrates into a drawing or a photograph, sometimes not. Shrigley takes the idea the furthest, proving that it isn’t language that determines consciousness but the other way around. It’s impossible to leaf through this compilation and not emerge with the sense that some latent intellectual and emotional block, born of dread, has been at least partially lifted through a process akin to extreme mixed-media homeopathy. The variegated works showcased, from a Venn diagram presenting all the possible logical articulations of various behaviors (singing, dancing, stealing) to decapitated taxidermy (a cat, an ostrich), and dementedly funny sketches and panels drawn in Shrigley’s signature childlike style (for example, a cloaked executioner taking his/her dog for a walk after a successful slaying, and a boring bus ride) possess both an inherent dadaist quality and a strong sociopolitical subtext. Taken cumulatively, Shrigley’s comic illustrations and words have the effect of a miraculous mental booster drug. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 11/14/2011

Joe the Barbarian: The Deluxe Edition

Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. DC/Vertigo, $29.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4012-2971-9

An Eisner nominee for “Best Limited Series,” this extraordinarily rich book transfigures adolescent angst. Thirteen-year-old Joe Manson has many excuses for self-pity: his soldier father was killed in the Middle East, and his despairing mother is afraid of losing their home; he’s essentially friendless; and if he doesn’t carefully monitor his diabetes he could lapse into a hypoglycemic coma. That may, in fact, be what happens one night when he’s alone in the house during a storm. Yet while he gropes through the darkness to reach life-saving glucose, Joe also finds himself in a magical realm whose inhabitants welcome him as the Dying Boy, destined to save them from King Death and restore the light. Accompanied by life-size versions of his favorite toys and by his pet rat transformed into a mighty warrior, Joe sets off on his heroic mission. Morrison’s script deftly juggles events in both realities. Murphy’s art (aided by Dave Stewart’s coloring and Todd Klein’s lettering) is wonderfully detailed, but also offers vast panoramas in which little Joe and his companions are almost—but not quite—overwhelmed and lost. A very beautiful and exhilarating comic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 11/14/2011

Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works

Jonathan Gruber, HP Newquist, and Nathan Schreiber. Hill and Wang, $13.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-0-8090-5397-1

As its subtitle indicates, this book is about more than entertainment. It delivers information, like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, through an earnest but informal lecture by a cartoon version of an expert—in this case Gruber, an MIT economics professor who helped craft Massachusetts’s successful health care reform plan as well as the Affordable Care Act, which has been the subject of so much confusion and deliberate misinformation. He begins the presentation by confronting a small group of people with the enormous medical bills they could receive after medical treatment, then moves from the individual to the national level to show that our present system is unfair and unsustainable. The explanation of how the ACA can fix the problems may not convince all readers, but they’ll come away with a clearer understanding of what the real issues are. Schrieber’s simple black and white art effectively uses symbols and some basic charts to help explain the morass. An effective use of comics as part of a public policy debate. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 11/14/2011