So many comics clogging up the queue!

I've gotten really behind on reviewing graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and other curiosities not in the "single issue" format. Now, some people might be happy that I'm not reviewing those things, because, as we know, whenever I post something, the intelligence quotient of the blog goes waaaaay down, but what the hell - I'm going to review stuff anyway! Plus, I get to use the word "queue," which is a fantastic word.

So let's check out a bunch of books that may or may not have been on your radar! It's a very long post, I just thought I should warn you. Sorry!

Weird, wee comics:

Will Dinski was nice enough to send me a couple of his comics, An Endorsement of Smoking and Others, and what surprised me the most were their size. These are tiny comics - the first, when folded, is 4½ inches by 3 inches, approximately (about the size of a cigarette pack), while the latter is 5x4 inches. If you unfold the first, it becomes a larger piece of paper, but it's still a single piece telling a story. It's kind of bizarre, but in a good way.

Because of their size, Dinski really doesn't tell stories in these two comics. They're really just wry observations on certain aspects of life. An Endorsement of Smoking makes the point that if you succumb to the temptation to smoke, you can learn how to "deny a need that is really a want." His protagonist is able to ignore his craving until after he gets off work, which is a small triumph. The second comic consists of two short stories. In "The Pressman," a guy who works nights on a printing press for a newspaper pretends to be a regular office worker just for fun. He eavesdrops on the employees, and discovers that one of them is having an affair and is also artificially inflating stock prices. It's a cute little story about the hypocrisy of men, and a minor point that just because you have a nice job it doesn't make you a better person. The second story, "Get Away From Me," is narrated by a bird who doesn't like crowds. Yes, a bird. He complains about humans and all their "toys" (cell phones and such) and flies into the pure, uncluttered sky, where he ... joins a crowd of birds. It's a clever little story about what makes us comfortable and even if we whine about something, we might like something very much like that thing we whine about.

Dinski's art is perfectly fine to tell his stories. It's not really minimalistic, because he has plenty of details in the panels, but it's certainly low-key. It tells the story with little fuss. He does a good job making the people look harried and haggard, which is how a lot of people who work in offices look. It's a small touch, but a good one.

If you're interested in checking out Dinski's work, head on over to his web site. It's neat, and has a bunch of mini-comics for you to read.

Comics for the kiddies, because the children are our future:

It's tough for me to review stuff that is written more for children, because although I can admire it, I'm usually not that interested in it. But I do my best, because I think it's good to know that there are books out there for kids that don't insult their intelligence and provide good entertainment. Like these books!

First up is Mail Order Ninja, volumes 1 & 2, which is written by Joshua Elder and drawn by Erich Owen. Susan Hale of TokyoPop was nice enough to send these to me many months ago, and I never got around to reviewing them. As you might have guessed, I'm not really a manga guy. I'm not sure why, and I realize that doesn't make me a cool and hip comics person, but I have never been into it whenever I've read it (which isn't often). I see those big eyes and tiny mouths and pointy chins and I just get turned off. Yes, it's my loss.

This is a very nice book for children, even though I personally wasn't all that keen on it. Part of the reason is because it's very much aimed at children specifically, so although it was fun to read, it was fun to read in a hyper-kinetic, video-game, short-attention-span kind of way. It's filled with jokes about elementary school life, and while I appreciated them, I haven't been in grade school since the 1980s, man, so I've kind of moved beyond that. The story is about Timmy McAlister, a normal suburban kid who is tired of being pushed around at school, so he orders a ninja through the mail. Said ninja, Yoshida Jiro, becomes Timmy's protector. All is well until the school's stuck-up rich girl, Felicity Dominique Huntington, gets her own, evil ninja. In volume 2, Felicity becomes an evil monster thanks to some ancient magic, and there's a big fight. Everything turns out well in the end.

Elder does add some nice touches that make this more "adult-friendly," with some references to things that would probably go over kids' heads, like a panel in which the townspeople tear down a statue of Felicity that looks like troops tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein. Timmy reads his own adventures in a book that looks strangely like the one we're reading and comments that there's too much kissing, and that's why Americans shouldn't write manga. There's a lot of charming little asides like that, but overall, this is aimed squarely where it should be: at kids. It's a big fight with ninjas. There are bullies, bratty sisters, clueless parents, spoiled brats, nerds, and guys getting picked on because they like girls. Owen's art is frenetic and full of nice fighting action and some clever uses of music and layouts, but again, it's manga. The eyes ... they haunt me!

This is a very fun book that is perfect to get kids into comics. Manga certainly does that well. It's easily digestible, somewhat forgettable (in a good, pop culture-y kind of way), and it never lets you catch your breath. And, at my age, I need to catch my breath sometimes!

Moving on, we find Polly and the Pirates by Ted Naifeh, which is published by Oni Press. Here's a comic that was a bit of an Internet darling when it first came out, and everyone kept wondering why I wasn't buying it. Well, if you can wait for the trade, I can too, can't I? So I bought the trade. Happy now?!?!?

This is in the same vein as Mail Order Ninja, but I enjoyed it a bit more. First of all, Naifeh's art is better. It has more depth, more character, and although there are plenty of fantastical people in it who look a bit too wild to be real, it's more realistic. Now, it's not overly realistic, but what I mean is that the characters look more in their environment, as if they really inhabit the ships and docks and schools where the story takes place. Plus, the environment itself is more fully realized than in Mail Order Ninja, in which the characters occasionally (not always) take center stage to the detriment of the mise-en-scene. Despite the fantasy elements of the book, it feels like a Victorian setting, which is nice.

The story is fairly standard, but Naifeh tells it with a great deal of verve and some neat character moments. Polly Pringle is a young girl at a high-falutin' boarding school in the exotic city of St. Helvetia. Her father is an ambassador, and her mother is dead. She's a proper young lady who ignores her friend's desire to get out and see the wide world. However, one night she's kidnapped by pirates, who need a captain. They kidnapped her because her mother was Meg Malloy, the greatest pirate ever! Polly wants nothing to do with the pirates, but eventually, she does. Of course she does! There's a treasure, after all! And a gorgeous pirate who also wants the treasure, but whose charms Polly does not succumb to - she's a proper lady! Polly has to find the treasure map (and how it was lost is a fun little story) and race to the treasure. And, of course, the navy is on her trail. She's a pirate as well as a proper lady! It all works out in the end, naturally, but as usual with genre stories, it's how we get to the end that counts.

Naifeh does a nice job giving all the characters distinct personalities, and telling the story in a manner that allows them to remain true to their personalities. Polly, especially, is a very interesting character, in that she has to learn how to survive in the outside world and grow up a bit. She's charming in the beginning of the book, but a bit naïve. She knows enough to not get mixed up with pirates and strangers, but as we move through the book, she has to learn about loyalty and standing up for what you believe. It's not simply an adventure - Polly does some not-very-nice things, and she has to rectify them. Throughout the adventure, we see Polly becoming more of a grown-up, and Naifeh does a good job balancing that with the idea that she's still a kid.

Polly and the Pirates is a very enjoyable book. It looks great, and the story is entertaining enough for both adults and kids. It certainly skews more toward children, but it's the kind of book that an adult can read and get something more than just a pirate adventure. Plus, there's a bit with Emperor Norton. That's kind of neat. This is an Internet darling because, well, it deserves to be. Seek it out!

And then there's Mouse Guard, the collected edition. This is written and drawn by David Petersen and published by Archaia Studios Press, and although I've already reviewed it, the hardcover is so keen I thought I'd review it again. Why not? The people at Archaia were nice enough to send it to me, after all.

The biggest reason NOT to buy this comic is its price. It's $25, although I'm sure you can find it cheaper on one of those evil on-line book conglomerates. However, it's gorgeous. Petersen's art is simply marvelous to look at. He creates a mouse-sized world that is beautiful, real, and familiar yet slightly weird - it's inhabited by intelligent mice, after all. Every panel is stunning, with a rich atmosphere of leaves, trees, rocks, sand (for the beach scenes) and elaborate architecture. The mice, despite all looking like, well, mice, are easily distinguishable just from little touches Petersen gives them (beside just the cloaks the three main characters wear). Saxon always looks a bit grumpy, for instance, and he's the hothead of the group. The fight scenes, of which there are plenty, are wonderfully choreographed and exciting. There's a real sense of menace to the rebel army, and the crabs in issue #2 are terrifying. The colors are spectacular, too. It's a pleasure to gaze at this book as you page through it.

While the story is weaker than the art, it's still a grand adventure book. It's a bit by-the-numbers, as a rebel army attacks the main citadel of the Mouse Guard and the Guard must defend it, but Petersen pulls it off quite well. Early on, we are introduced to individual members of the Guard, who discover a plot to overthrow the head of the Guard, Gwendolyn, who lives in Lockhaven. The early issues are taut with suspense, and feature nice interplay between the characters. As the plot is revealed and the army marches on Lockhaven, we move onto a bigger stage and it becomes less suspenseful and more adventurous. It's a slight story because it's never very surprising, but at least Petersen does a fine job with the comaraderie between Lieam, Saxon, and Kenzie - especially the latter two - which helps keep us interested. The problem with the book is that for a first series, we don't have much of a history with the characters. Therefore, when bad things happen to mice, it doesn't have much impact on us because we haven't really learned much about them. Similarly, the traitor who is plotting against the Guard is not a mouse we can say would never do it, and so the shock is lessened. It's a minor point, but it seems that Petersen could have developed the characters and their relationships a bit more before moving on to the main action. Perhaps one more issue?

For the people who bought the series in single issue format, there's an epilogue that doesn't add too much, so you shouldn't worry too much about missing it. It's simply a summation of where all the principals are as Petersen sets up the next mini-series. We do get a nice map of the mouse area, plus a few drawings of Barkstone and Lockhaven, as well as some of the jobs that the mice do in the towns. These are nice additions, but they don't change much from the single issues, which is appreciated. I get that you want to entice people to buy the collected edition as well as the single issues, but there shouldn't be a penalty for those who managed to get it when it first came out.

This is a wonderful comic for both kids and adults. Sure, mice die, but there's nothing graphic. It's an adventure, after all, so there's going to be violence! It got a ton of accolades when it came out, and for the most part, they're well earned. There's a new mini-series coming out soon, and I encourage you to track it down. If it's anywhere near as good as this, it will be a wonderful book.

Comics NOT for the kiddies, because screw them, really, and their stupid video games:

And then there's the stuff that you probably shouldn't let the kids read. There's only one selection in this category, although the rest of these might be not completely kid-friendly. This one, however, definitely isn't.

Wormwood, Gentleman Corpse: Birds, Bees, Blood & Beer is written and drawn by Ben Templesmith and published by IDW. If you've only seen Templesmith's art and never read anything by him, this is certainly a good place to start, but be warned: if you think his art is wild, you haven't really experienced the wierdness of the Templesmith mind. He's a freakin' nut (in a very good way).

Take this comic. It's about a sentient worm who lives inside the eye of a corpse and uses said corpse to get around. He hangs out with Mr. Pendulum, a cyborg and ... what exactly is Phoebe, anyway? Is she an ex-stripper or ex-bartender? Anyway, she joins up with Wormwood and the three of them stop a demonic invasion. Yes, it sounds like a pretty standard horror comic, but Templesmith has a wonderful flair with his characters. It reads like a less bitter Warren Ellis, which is certainly a good thing. Wormwood drinks, smokes, and jokes his way through the book, with Mr. Pendulum and Phoebe serving as his straight men. It's a very funny book, with too many nice touches to mention. My personal favorite is probably when Moloch, the big bad demon at the end of the book, gets a phone call from his wife right in the middle of the climactic battle. He says, "I might be a little late tonight. I'm eating an entire world right now. ... Look, you really have to stop calling me at work so often. It wrecks my concentration." Fun stuff like this grounds the characters and adds a nice extra dimension even to big powerful demons. The entire book is like this, with bizarre characters showing up and shooting the shit, and it's done well enough that we get a sense of "reality" about the proceedings, even though the book is full of tentacles (eeeeeeekkk!!!!!) and other such malevolent creatures. I mean, erectile dysfunction plays a key part of the plot - how much more "reality-based" can you get?

Templesmith's art is probably the real draw of the book (despite the goodness of the story) and he doesn't disappoint. It's kind of odd - his art has never really looked bad in the many things he's done, but occasionally, it looks a bit sloppy. I know, how can you tell, but in certain comics - I'm thinking of Hatter M in particular, but occasionally even in Fell - it seems like the drawings aren't as sharp and the colors not as dynamic. I don't know if it's because he's working on a book that someone else is writing, but here, the details are sharper and clearer, and even when things get messy (as they often do; there's a lot of blood in the book, obviously), it looks cleaner than in some of his comics. I suppose in a book like Fell, the art should make Snowtown look gloomy, but sometimes it's overly blurred, it seems to me. Here, even the demons exploding out of people's bellies look crisp. And when a demon explodes out of someone's belly, I want to see the viscera, damn it!

All in all, this is a fantastic book. As with all IDW books, it's a tad overpriced (20 dollars), but it contains violence, horror, humor, beautiful art, and a freakin' worm riding around in a corpse. How cool is that?

Comics that came out years ago but have been re-issued:

It's always nice to see things that flew under the radar get a new lease on life. Recently we've had a few of those. Let's check them out!

The first is another Internet darling, The Professor's Daughter, by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, which was originally published in France in 1997 (it's translated by Alexis Siegel). First Second, which has brought us some very good graphic novels over the past year, has re-published it for the ignorant American audience. That was nice of them!

The Professor's Daughter is a bit of an odd duck. It's like Arsenic and Old Lace (but less comedic) in that it has the feeling of a drawing-room comedy of manners with, you know, murder. It's the story of a mummy - Imhotep IV - who comes to life somehow in Victorian England and falls in love with the daughter of the man who excavated him. The two of them enjoy a wonderful day jaunting around London until Imhotep insults a local who demands satisfaction, bringing a police man with him to the professor's house. There, the daughter, Lillian, accidentally poisons both of them. So, of course, the two of them need to go on the lam. The problems keep mounting, of course, until we get a final showdown between Imhotep and his father at the Tower of London. Oh, and Queen Victoria ends up in the Thames. Isn't that always the way?

Sfar does a nice job keeping things moving along, but the biggest problem with the story is that it doesn't take itself seriously enough. It certainly shouldn't be all doom and gloom, but people do get murdered, and Lillian and Imhotep do have some issues to resolve. As an adventure story, it works fine, but occasionally Sfar gets a bit deeper with what he's trying to say, then pulls back before he can explore it. It's a strange choice, and adds a bit of disjointedness to the story. To return to Arsenic and Old Lace, there's a tiny bit of depth in the movie (I've never seen the play), but it's basically just that Cary Grant is afraid of marriage and the fact that he's trying to hide all these murders makes it look like he's even more afraid than he is. It's a charming little problem. In this book, the problems are a bit deeper, as Imhotep yearns to be reunited with his dead wife and Lillian's father suffers some trauma, but Sfar never gets too involved with those ideas. It's a somewhat light adventure, and therefore the tone shifts are jarring.

Despite that, it's a good book, although I guess I don't love it as much as some people. Guibert's art certainly helps, as his characters are charming or misshapen or slightly scary, depending on the mood of the scene. The setting feels very much of the times, too, while his Queen Victoria is wonderfully stoic. He does a nice job with the few panels in which the story takes a darker tone, as well, showing Lillian's despair when she rejects Imhotep. Guibert also manages to give Imhotep, who spends most of the book wrapped in bandages, a good personality with very little difference in facial expressions. The art is the highlight of the book because of the story's strange shifts.

This is a clever book that makes some good points about the society in which Lillian lives but never delves too deeply. It's certainly an unexpected treat, even if it doesn't quite live up to the hype. It's still a nice book to read.

Another book that has recently shown up again is Three Strikes, which was a mini-series back in 2003-04. It's written by the husband-and-wife team of Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis, drawn by Brian Hurtt, and published by Oni. I'm not sure why it's getting a release now - I guess Hurtt just got done with The Damned for Oni, and maybe his profile is higher now than it was then (and it was supposed to be out quite a while ago, so maybe there's a different reason).

Three Strikes is a fine comic that follows a sort of diabolical inevitabilty. It's the tale of Rey Quintana and Noah Conway, whose lives become twisted together through awful circumstances. Rey is a young kid who shoplifts earrings for his girlfriend's birthday. He has two prior convictions, for vandalism and refusing to give up a drug dealer, so the state goes after him under California's "three strikes" law. This could add up to over twenty years in prison, so Rey skips bail, and that's where Conway, a bounty hunter, comes in. As Conway pursues Rey, Rey hooks up with the drug dealer he refused to name, and finds himself getting deeper and deeper in trouble. Conway is kind of a mess, too, as he's divorced and estranged from his teenaged daughter. It's his turn to watch her, but of course he has a job to do. He is a hard-line kind of guy when it comes to the law, but as he investigates Rey, he begins to realize that the kid isn't a bad guy, just someone who continues to find avenues closed to him. Rey continues to spiral as Conway tries to deny responsibility for driving him further into crime and for neglecting his daughter. The book has a Thelma and Louise feel to it, but it's far murkier than that was. We know it's not going to end well, but we also want to keep following these characters as they learn more about each other and themselves. It's a gripping read even as it becomes bleaker and bleaker.

Hurtt's art certainly helps. He portrays the grittiness of the streets of Los Angeles and Needles and the dark corners of Las Vegas nicely. The end of the book, where the action ramps up, is very well done, and the black-and-white shading of the book heightens the moral ambiguity throughout the entire thing. The starkness of the bleak ending with the well-lit street on which Rey and Conway confront each other is wonderful; Hurtt does a great job of creating a stifling environment even though the scene is set on a wide-open street in the middle of the afternoon. Hurtt is a fine artist; it would be nice to see him get wider recognition.

Weir and DeFilippis have done a wonderful job incorporating several social issues into a gripping crime drama. Rey understands his culpability in his crimes, but there are also mitigating circumstances to all of them. As his crimes get worse, we recognize that he's become a worse criminal, while at the same time we sympathize with him. It's a very nice trick the writers play on us. The lousy liberals who generally read comics (yes, I'm one of them) will be naturally sympathetic toward Rey, but even someone like me, who obviously wants free pot for all school children and a 90% tax on everyone who makes more money than I do, can recognize that early on, Rey doesn't really deserve our sympathy because he's so stupid. As his life becomes more hellish, however, we come to feel badly for him. Similarly, Conway begins the book as a jerk, but we understand why he feels no pity for Rey. As he learns more about the situation, he too becomes more sympathetic. This makes the ending, when the two face off, much more gut-wrenching. But that's the point.

Three Strikes is an excellent example of gritty crime drama. If you like Ed Brubaker books, why wouldn't you hunt this down? It's not anything revolutionary, but it gives us very good characters trapped in a situation that could easily happen (and probably does, quite often). This is a world in which decisions have consequences, and not all of them are good. Pick it up at your local retailer!

Moving on, we get to Less Than Heroes by David Yurkovich, which is published by Top Shelf. The tales of the heroes were originally around back in 2004 in various publications, so it's good to see it all in one place.

Less Than Heroes is a superhero book, telling the stories of Threshold, a group of four superheroes in Philadelphia. It's a very good book, with fantastic black-and-white art and weird stories. Threshold is made up of the Cosmopolitan, Meridian, Mr. Malevolence, and Recoil. The premise of the book is that all major American cities are protected by a union-sanctioned group of superheroes ... except Philadelphia (as a native of the area, this seems odd in one way - Philly has always been a big union town - and fitting in another way - Philly is always getting short shrift, it seems). The city is protected by Threshold and some independent operatives, who are the object of scorn from the union heroes, notably the ones in New York.

As I mentioned, Yurkovich's art in this volume is fantastic. He has a wonderful sense of the bizarre that fits the superhero theme very well, but he also gives us some very nice creepy scenes and even some cosmic ones. We get some truly weird villains, like the Lightning Man and the Stamp Collector, who are the two main ones, as well as a bunch of minor ones who show up occasionally. A lot of mainstream superhero books have forgotten the sense of the bizarre in their comics, until we lose that feeling of awe at these fantastic beings among us. Yurkovich shows us how odd these heroes and their villains really are, without losing that sense of wonder. It's a nice balancing act that he pulls off with the art, and it helps us when the guy with the nuclear warhead attached to his, well, head shows up later on in the book. It's still a goofy look, but in the context of the visuals Yurkovich has been providing us, it works.

The story is strange, but not necessarily in a bad way. Yurkovich tells two different stories, plus a short epilogue. The first one, in which the "villain" is the Lightning Man, is about a secret space exploration project that went bad back in the 1960s. The Lightning Man is the only survivor, and he returns to Earth years later, but changed. If you guessed that he can somehow zap people with electrical discharges, give yourself a Gold Star! He escapes the facility where he's being studied, naturally, and our heroes confront him, but it doesn't go as expected. The Lightning Man isn't a threat, actually, he's just on Earth to collect data for the aliens who changed him. When that's complete, he simply leaves. Yurkovich easily moves on to the next story, which involves the Stamp Collector. This story is more creepy, as a woman in 1955 performs a rite of dark magic in order to bring her dead son back to life. The rite goes horribly wrong (I know, shocking), and she and her husband become trapped inside her son's stamp album. Years later, an executive named Orion is pushed out of business by his partner, who steals his wife for good measure, and Orion ends up at the same sinister pawnbroker who gave the woman the book of dark magic years earlier. This time, he gives Orion the stamp album, and he's changed into the Stamp Collector, who traps his victims on stamps. When Threshold gets involved, he traps them too. While they're in a strange postage stamp world trying to figure out how to escape, the mayor of Philadelphia calls in the New York superheroes to stop the Stamp Collector. Threshold saves the day, but everyone thinks the New York heroes do. Of course. Finally, the third story is a rather bleak Christmas story that involves a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit about to commit suicide by jumping off a building. Mr. Malevolence shows up to talk him down, but the story doesn't end quite as we expect it to, even though it's kind of a "happy" ending. It's a very nice tale.

The stories are well done, especially the Stamp Collector one. Yurkovich also throws in a lot of nice details about the entire superhero universe in which they live. The New York superheroes have to negotiate a contract with the mayor of Philadelphia as the Stamp Collector rampages through the city, and they refuse to help until all the details are hammered out. It's interesting to note that this story came out a few years before Civil War. The superheroes are simply making sure they don't get sued if something happens, while the bad guy continues unabated. The negotiations add to the oddness of the proceedings. There are a lot of touches like that, as Yurkovich shows us a world in which superheroes act a lot like normal people, just with powers. It's not exactly "what if superheroes actually existed," because it's too strange a world. It's much more like the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League, in that Threshold and the other groups feel more like groups of people just hanging out who fight bad guys occasionally. It's a neat effect, and makes the comic an interesting read.

I'm not entirely sure if Yurkovich is making fun of superheroes in this book. I don't think so, but it's certainly possible. Warren Ellis has a pull quote on the front that says "If there have to be super-hero comics, then I want them to be David Yurkovich's ..." These comics are good superhero comics, but that quote, from noted superhero-hater Ellis, seems to imply Yurkovich is showing the idiocy of superheroes even as he's writing them. But I don't think so. This is the kind of superhero book that could easily be from one of the Big Two. It doesn't challenge any of the conventions of the genre (except for maybe the negotiations before the heroes fight), it just tells some good stories. I would still recommend it, because it's a very good superhero book, but I don't want you to think it's revolutionizing the way we look at superhero comics. It's just a damned good superhero comic. So put down that issue of New Avengers and buy this instead! No Skrulls appear anywhere!

Brand new graphic novels, the last of which is in the running for best of the year (so far):

Last but not least, we have some books that aren't collections of stuff.

First, let's have a gander at In Dublin City, which is written and drawn by Gerry Hunt. This is actually a collection of two comic books, but it's new and not a re-issue, so it's here. Just deal with it.

Hunt gives us two stories that really show a nice portrait of Dublin. I don't really like the comic all that much, but I do admire how Hunt shows us everything about the city and its people. He takes us on a tour through all the parts of the city and reveals it, warts and all. We go to seedy pubs (lots of them) and through alleys, behind churches, into ruined buildings, down to the docks, and even out onto the Seven Seas. In that way, In Dublin City is a success. It's a wonderful and "real" look at a city.

However, it falls short in the story section. I don't love the art, but I can live with it. Hunt isn't really that concerned with telling a good story. The first section is about a legendary poker game that takes an odd turn at the end, while the second story concerns a woman whose lover goes off to sea, leaving her pregnant. Both stories are occasionally funny and biting, but they easily fall into the Irish stereotype, and that weakens them. The people in the stories are coarse and rude and often ignorant, and nobody that we really care about all that much. We often see stories in which we don't like anyone, but at least the characters are compelling. In these two stories, the inhabitants of Dublin are more like a freak show, where we catch sight of them, stare for a moment, but then recoil in horror. It's a disconcerting read, because as we're transported around and get deep into the inner workings of the city, we're repelled by the people living there. No character is particularly memorable nor interesting, and Hunt's style - both stories feature narration in rhyme - help push us further away from the characters. I get that the comic isn't really about the characters, but when it becomes nothing more than a way to illustrate folk poems about Dublin, it suffers.

Hunt's art is grotesque, too, and in a slightly good way. It's ugly, but weirdly compelling. All his figures are exaggerated, and it makes the street scenes strangely beautiful. His woman are almost all fat, and none of them, apparently, wear bras. Meanwhile, a lot of his men are fat too, and many others are seedy in every way. I don't love the art, but I have to admit it's refreshing to see people drawn this way, especially when placed into the mileau of Dublin and allowed to inhabit the world Hunt has drawn around them. It helps with this world he's created and keeps us inside it, which is what Hunt wants.

I'm not a big fan of In Dublin City, unfortunately. Its interesting parts are overwhelmed by the dull stories and the ugly (despite its weird appeal) art. It certainly gives you a very interesting portrait of a city. If that's your thing, you might want to check this out.

As we zip along, we get to The Homeless Channel by Matt Silady. The fine folk at AiT/Planet Lar have brought this to us, and given their track record, it ought to be at least an interesting read. Well, it is, but it has some problems. Let's check the book out!

The book is about a young woman, Darcy Shaw, who comes up with a network devoted to programming about the homeless. This is a great idea, and Silady does some nice work with it. Darcy pitches the network to a big corporation, and we get some neat ideas for shows, including one in which two recent college graduates with no money and no job document their trevails. We follow Darcy through her triumphs and her struggles with the sponsors, as she attempts to balance the demands of the advertisers with her own desire to bring attention to the homeless. This is the heart of the book, and it's done well. Darcy generally gets what she wants with not a lot of trouble, but it's interesting to read about it, because her personality helps carry her through the difficulties. The dialogue in the book is occasionally a bit too razor-sharp, as if Silady were channeling Aaron Sorkin, but it's not too distracting. The book has two subplots, one of which is important and done well, the other of which is not as important and done less well. Darcy's sister Mary is homeless, and this helps drive Darcy. It's a crucial element of the book, and even though Mary isn't in the book all that much, her presence and situation feeds into Darcy's desire to help all the homeless even though she knows she can't. The guilt she feels over Mary isn't expressed in words, which is nice, but through Darcy's actions, culminating in a confrontation with a homeless man who demands more money from her on the street. There's a minor problem with the subplot, and that's that we don't get a very good idea that the two sisters are that close. Yes, Darcy feels guilty about Mary's state, but it's kind of vague - as if she feels that way simply because they're sisters. Well, sisters don't necessarily have to like each other. The one conversation they do have reins in Darcy's tart tongue and presents some nice dialogue, but they don't really say much. It is, after all, a minor complaint, as we see Darcy deal with her feelings toward her sister in a more "hands-on" kind of way.

Darcy's romance with the corporate advisor, Grady O'Connor, is handled not as well, and it feels a bit gratuitous. We never get the sense that these people really care about each other, and it's mostly because Grady is a pretty dull character. He's a perfectly nice guy, but Silady doesn't put the time in on this subplot as he does with the other aspects of the story, so we're just supposed to accept the romance. It's perfectly reasonable to think they might have a fling, but as it gets more serious, we don't accept it, because the two seem mismatched. With the homeless situation, Silady is getting at aspects of Darcy's character. But her romance with Grady doesn't reveal anything about her, except that she is occasionally rude. We don't need a new subplot for that.

The story elements, however, don't distract from the book all that much. The sections that work overshadow the weak romance enough to keep our interest. What bugs me about the book is the art. It's similar to another recent comic from AiT/Planet Lar, The Last Sane Cowboy and Other Stories, but whereas in that comic the art added to the surreality of the stories, in this it distracts us. According to Kieron Gillen, the art in The Last Sane Cowboy was done "using posed models, then post-processing them." I assume Silady does it the same way, although I am largely ignorant of the technology by which one would do this. What we get is a book that looks far too posed, and without any of the organic touches that make a comic different from, say, a book of photographs. In a few panels, it's clear Silady drew his figures free hand, and they don't fit with the rest of the hyper-realistic art. I know this is a bit of trend in comics these days, but it bugs me, because it's supposed to look more "natural" but the lack of movement in the pictures makes it look more like waxworks. I wonder if Silady had just used photographs if it would have looked better. I'm not sure. I don't know if this is "easier" than drawing figures free hand or even drawing from a model, but it doesn't make the art better. It's a shame, because the story, for the most part, is so interesting.

Silady certainly has a great idea with this book, and the central character keeps it together. He makes some wonderful points about the way the homeless are treated and viewed in this country without preaching about it, and it makes the book worthwhile. Can I help it if I don't like the art?

As we reach the home stretch, we get to The Black Diamond Detective Agency, which is written and drawn by Eddie Campbell, adapted (apparently) a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell (the guy who came up with the story for Blood Diamond?). It is published by First Second as well, and continues their success rate.

Campbell is an artist who, back in my younger and stupider days, I didn't really like all that much. Sure, I dutifully bought every issue of From Hell, but that may have had something to do with the writer. I didn't really like the art until a few years later when I re-read it and found some very cool stuff. I'm still not the biggest fan of Campbell's art, but I like it more than I used to, and this book, which is the first time (I think) that I've seen his art in color, is beautiful. He brings 1899 Missouri and Chicago to life with a great deal of panache, and the gritty parts of the book are still wonderfully done. He uses the colors well, too. The two-page spread of the train exploding early on is colored all in red and black, and looks superb. In a later gunfight the blood is candy-apple red, contrasting nicely to the drab browns and grays around it. Campbell brings this world to life with great details and excellent contrast between the softer, more feminine world of someone like Sadie, the facial artist, and the dirty masculine world most of the cast inhabits. It's an absolutely gorgeous book to look at.

I have read a few reviews that were less than impressed with the story, however. I was actually a bit trepidatious about reading it (I guess it came to Arizona a bit later than some other parts of the country) after reading some of the reviews. I needn't have worried, though, because while Campbell doesn't do anything spectacularly different with the story, it's a very good adventure/espionage story that begins with an exploding train and a framed man and ends with ... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it? We begin with John and Jules Hardin, and the first few pages make it clear something unusual is going on. The first page shows up John (she calls him "Jackie") and Jules' word balloon: "And you mean to spend the rest of your life hiding behind fake glasses?" If this isn't intriguing enough (why is he hiding?), on the next page Jules is apparently writing a letter to someone named "Frank." Who is this? Why is she writing to another man? What's going on???? And this is before the train coming into Lebanon, Missouri, explodes at the station, and this is before John sees men unloading a safe from said train, and this is before John returns home to find that Jules has left him, and this is before the Black Diamond Detective Agency (a Pinkerton stand-in, I would assume) shows up and arrests John for participating in the robbery, and this is before we discover that no one seems to know what was even in the safe! What the hell? John escapes and heads to Chicago to track down his wife and find out why he's been framed. The detectives, meanwhile, are hot on his trail, but the Secret Service is breathing down their necks. Why? Well, you'll just have to buy it to find out, won't you?

This is a nicely plotted book that keeps revealing the secrets in a way that doesn't feel forced. We follow John around and we gradually learn what he was doing in Lebanon and why his wife was writing a letter and why she left him and even what's going on with the safe. The solution isn't all that exciting (a character even comments on it), but it does make sense within the context of the book and as a solid plot that would work (probably) if a bad guy concocted it. Ultimately, this book is about a man trying to escape his past but being forced to confront it before he can put it behind him. It's not revolutionary, but that kind of plot is the stuff of solid fiction, and Campbell is talented enough to pull it off (of course, the art helps). It's a well-done spy thriller. It doesn't need to be anything more.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency is a very good comic. It's not quite as good as our last selection, but it's still worth your time.

Finally (phew!) we get to a book that will probably be on my short list for best graphic novel of the year: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan, published by Drawn and Quarterly. It's 20 dollars, but it's excellent.

Exit Wounds tells the story of a young Israeli, Koby Franco, who drives a cab in Tel Aviv. He gets a call for a fare who turns out to be a young soldier. Her name is Numi, and she tells Koby that she thinks his father was killed in a bus station cafeteria bombing. One of the bodies was burned beyond recognition, but Numi claims she saw something that tipped her off. She's evasive about her hunch, and Koby wants nothing to do with her. He's estranged from his father and doesn't care to know what he's been doing. However, he can't reach his father on the phone, and his apartment doesn't appear to have been lived in for a while. So he returns to Numi, and the two begin to investigate.

As Koby and Numi try to find out what happened to Gabriel (Koby's father), the story becomes much more than a simple mystery. It becomes a story about family and about father-son relationships, but not in a traditional way. Gabriel remains an enigmatic figure, as we learn more and more about his seemingly contradictory life. He was a poor father, but he cared about Numi. However, he also cheated on her. He "got" religion but still doesn't contact his son. He loved a gift Numi gave him, so much that he gave it to another woman. And the question remains: is he dead? And if he's not dead, what happened to him?

Numi and Koby go through a great deal, as well. Numi is confronted with the fact that the man she thought she loved was cheating on her. Koby has had years to come to terms with his father's nature, but he still feels cheated when he realizes that Gabriel was closer to relative strangers than he was to his own family. Koby and Numi begin a romance, and it's a wonderfully real courtship with all the attendant bumps in the road. Numi is not attractive, and early on, Koby reacts angrily whenever someone asks if she's his girlfriend. She knows she's not pretty, and this just reinforces it. Then, when she finds out Gabriel was cheating on her (with an elderly woman, no less), she becomes even more upset. Koby has come to realize how kind she is, and they have sex, but it ends awkwardly. It's a beautiful relationship the two have, because it's uncomfortable at times and always has the specter of his father hanging over them. In true relationship fashion, one of them does something wrong but the other is made to feel guilty. Isn't that always the way?

I won't ruin the ending, because the final chapter is a very nice resolution that allows Koby to put his ghosts to rest and come to some kind of understanding about his father. It also allows him to see Numi again, and the last page is a wonderful wordless summation of what it means to be in a relationship and how sometimes you just have to trust the other person. It's an uplifting and even spiritual ending, and we realize that both Koby and Numi are free of their past with Gabriel.

Modan's art is nice, as well. She keeps the reality of Israel and its troubles in the forefront without beating us over the head with it. These are characters who speak rather casually of bombings yet are still upset by the deaths these bombings cause. Numi and Koby are drawn wonderfully as well - Numi really is ugly, but we can see her kindness and the spark that attracts Koby to her, and when she's happy, her face lights up. Dave Lartigue calls the art "Tintin-esque," and that's as good a description as I can give it. That might be strange in a book like this, but it works.

Exit Wounds is brilliant. I can't recommend it enough.

All right, I've wasted enough of your time. I apologize for the length of this, and I will try to review things in smaller chunks from now on. I think this shows that there are a ton of great comics out there that have nothing to do with the current idiotic thinking running through DC and Marvel. Let's sum up these books:

An Endorsement of Smoking and Others: Wry observational humor; check out Will Dinski's web site.

Mail Order Ninja: Great for kids; a bit too immature for me.

Polly and the Pirates: Still great for kids, and a fine read for adults.

Mouse Guard: Excellent adventure, with gorgeous art.

Wormwood, Gentleman Corpse: Hilarious horror with magnificent Templesmith art.

The Professor's Daughter: Charming, but a bit overrated.

Three Strikes: Gritty, topical noir; very good Brian Hurtt art.

Less Than Heroes: Above-average superhero comic.

In Dublin City: Good travelogue of the city; poorly executed "stories."

The Homeless Channel: Great idea, good main character, disappointing art.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency: Beautiful Eddie Campbell art; intriguing mystery.

Exit Wounds: One of the best graphic novels so far this year; brilliant look at relationships both good and bad.

What are you waiting for? Get thee to an on-line purveyor of fine literature! Or even one that exists in the real world!

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