Robot reviews: Wally Gropius and Dungeon Quest

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Wally Gropiusby Tim HensleyFantagraphics Books, 64 pages, $18.99

Wally Gropius can be a tough book to describe. It seems to revel in its contradictions. It's both an affectionate paean to the Archie/Harvey/Dell comics of yesteryear and a blistering critique of them. It has contains disturbing imagery and themes that will shock the unexpectant reader, but is also utterly silly, joyfully so at times. It comes off as jarring, even downright bizarre, in its blend of word and image, yet at the same time feels strangely familiar. Even with its influences writ largely on its sleeve, it's hard to find a book to compare it to.

I had never warmed to Hensley's work prior to this story, originally serialized in the Mome anthology. The few short pieces he did in anthologies like Dirty Stories left me befuddled and cold. His work seemed so deliberately off-putting, so more concerned with being clever than good, that I honestly didn't quite know what to make of it.

Not so with Gropius, however. Hensley seems to have come into his own here, dissecting the typical 20th century "teen-age" comic with the sharpest of scalpels. Via his title character, an adolescent millionaire who must choose between marrying the "saddest girl in the world" to make his father happy or courting the elusive Jillian, who just happens to be an expert in national anthems, Hensley brings to the fore all the uncomfortable aspects of the kids' comics of yesteryear that were buried too far down for most of us to notice. The warped sexual politics, the condescension and even occasional disdain the original creators had for their audience, the weird classism -- Hensley focuses his spotlight on these aspects and more, giving the book a palpable, off-beat tension.

But to call this a straightforward parody is a bit too easy (though Hensley does have more than a bit of Will Elder in him, filling his panels with sight gags and left-of-center references). Gropius is far too strange and unique a book to be so easily pigeonholed. Hensley fills his dialogue with goofy puns (both visual and verbal) and strange phrasings. He seems to revel in twisting around tired cliches ("I'm not the boss of me," Wally yells to his dad at one point), and loves to juxtapose the classic, dated style with modern allusions (this is the only comic I've seen that references both cameltoe and Abu Ghraib, though, sadly, not in the same panel).

By being both foreboding and accessible, menacing and friendly -- and doing so without suffering from sort of comic book schizophrenia, Hensley manages to create something rather unique and deeply rewarding in Wally Gropius. This is a comic that rewards multiple readings and contemplation. It's also one of the best -- and funniest -- books of the year.

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Dungeon Quest Book Oneby Joe DalyFantagraphics, 136 pages, $12.99.

Speaking of strange, what a oddly delightful little book this is, a mash-up of Dungeons & Dragons-type adventuring and stoner attitude, with a collection of weird collection of would-be heroes with names like Millennium Boy and Lash Penis fighting off Molelochs (giant mole people) and grotesque skeletons while questing for treasure in modern-day (sort of) South Africa.

This is no mere satire though. Daly knows his tabletop role-playing cold, and the story itself is plaid more or less straight with only the sliest of winks, right down to the weapons and outfit upgrades. Instead, the humor comes out of the characters and their idiosyncratic sayings that seem more in keeping with 21st-century San Francisco than the trappings of, say, Robert Jordan ("You gotta understand that ladies really appreciate it if you say something positive about their buttocks, y'dig").

To some degree, this book is a distant cousin to Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit. The main difference being that Daly is more concerned with pot jokes than gore. Both though, are part of this seemingly new try to find ways to give the familiar fantasy genre a clever twist. And both are concerned with exploring different ways to portray action and violence in comics. It's a bit too early to tell at this point if Daly is going to up the ante on this series or settle into a nice rpg/hippie groove. Based on the strengths of this introductory volume, however, I'm willing to where the adventure leads to.

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