Robot reviews: hodge-podge time

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Cold Heat 7/8by Ben Jones and Frank SantoroPictureBox Inc., 48 pages, $20.

This may be my favorite issue in the series so far, and I'm not sure I can easily articulate why. It's hard at times for me to talk about this series without coming up with empty, awkward phrases and stumbling cliches. There's something about hitting the time travel/memory wipe/reset plot button that appeals to me though, as protagonist Castle finds herself back at home and romancing a overly eager British music critic, though little has actually changed and dangerous aliens and evildoers are still lurking about.

Hitting that button must appeal greatly to Jones and Santoro as well, as they seem to be firing on all cylinders here. There's an ever so slight shift in tone that brings plot and dialogue a little farther up center than it had been before, though little of the series' sublime weirdness has been abandoned. Santoro offers some of his best compositions yet here; there's more than a few pages here that are quite striking. I like how he tries to think of the page as an entire unit and not a collection of separate tiny panels that tell a story. Too few contemporary cartoonists, indie or otherwise, follow that example. I also like how he uses overlapping lines to suggest a character's inner emotional state or provide different perspectives of the same scene. Meanwhile, Jones continues to show off his gift for hilarious, idiosyncratic dialogue. Twenty dollars may seem like a high price point (it's due to a limited print run) but you know what they say about no good comic being too expensive? It's true here.

Reviews of Dungeon and more after the jump.

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Dungeon, the Early Years Vol. 2: Innocence Lostby Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim and Chris BlainNBM, $12.95.

What really strikes me about this series is how it's steadily and almost imperceptibly moved from light parodic farce to dark melodrama. The more we learn about the characters and the more we see of their eventual futures, the more the characters' initial sunny disposition and smart-ass attitude seems like foolish naiveté.

In this case, said naivete belongs to Hyacinthe, the first keeper of the Dungeon. Having donned a dashing secret identity in the first Early Years volume as the Errol Flynn-ish Night Shirt, he quickly finds his ideals compromised again and again as he's placed in one difficult ethical dilemma after another. By the end of the book he's become a corrupt official who secretly leads a dangerous guild of assassins by night, while inadvertently bringing about the destruction of the city he's supposed to protect by day.

If I've made this sound like a dour slog, my apologies. It's anything but. The Dungeon series remains a thrilling, sharp read, in this case thanks largely in part to Blain's stunning art work. Certainly this isn't a good jumping-on point for newcomers, but it's well worth getting through the series to arrive at this point. You'll be surprised where the journey takes you.

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The Fat Freddy's Cat Omnibusby Gilbert SheltonKnockabout Press, $29.99.

For Shelton/underground comix completists only. It's basically a thick collection of one-page cat jokes, a little saltier than your average Garfield to be sure, what with the constant references to litter boxes and defecating in shoes, but it's cat jokes all the same. The longer stories are the best, as Shelton gets to engage in a bit of satire that's notable mainly in the way it careens from subject to subject like a pinball. I liked, for instance, how a story about the cat's battle with the apartment cockroaches becomes first a cold-war satire, then whiplashes to Hollywood, then just goes balls-out crazy. That was fun. But in between those fun stories are a lot of tired cat jokes. And I'm honestly not that crazy about cats.

Joe and Azatby Jesse LonerganNBM, 104 pages, $10.95.

A young peace corps volunteer heads to a vaguely authoritarian Central Asian country and becomes friends with one of the locals, an ever-optimistic schlub, who's always coming up with get-rich quick schemes. And, as you might imagine, it's through this relationship that the volunteer learns about himself and the wide world outside his safe home.

The book suffers somewhat from Longergan's vague descriptions of the country and culture, so that no real sense of place is ever conveyed, and Lonergan isn't a skilled enough artist to provide a lot of background detail that might enrich the story's telling.

That being said, this is still an entertaining book, mainly due to Longergan's deft characterizations, both with Azat and his extended family, especially his abusive drunkard of a brother. Lonergan may be vague on a number of details, but the dialogue nevertheless rings true. The fact that it doesn't overstay it's welcome helps too. It gets in, makes its points and leaves. I wish more comics would follow that example.

Turok #4

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