Every Wednesday, Paste looks at some of the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Even nerds like me, who frequently love European comics, approach Continental cartoonists deemed “the next great hope” with some reluctance. Surely, their work will be too New Yorker cartoony, too elliptical, too… French. Lewis Trondheim is nothing of the sort, and his Little Nothings series, newly issued in a three-volume set by NBM/ComicsLit, is the sort of book you might want to keep in your bathroom, to dip into from time to time. Trondheim may have won the grand prize at Angoulême, and he may travel regularly to places like Fiji and South Africa, but the minute scope of these sketches, which depict exactly what the title suggests, leads to identification more than jealousy. Trondheim is a prolific writer and artist, and he usually works with a partner, so it’s nice to see a project for which he’s solely responsible, rather than trying to parse out what, exactly, he’s contributed. The soft watercolors are relaxing but not sappy, and while the scenarios are rarely hilarious, they present the cartoonist himself as charmingly (i.e., mildly) neurotic in a way that consistently amuses the reader with moments of self-recognition and even occasionally pathos. Think American Elf with a lot less whining. (HB)
Top Shelf, 2011
Twenty years on from when its first uncollected issues were published, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper yarn has just gone into yet another printing, and it’s time to revisit it. Less acclaimed than Moore’s Watchmen—probably because it’s not so steeped in comics history—it’s just as packed with the bearded one’s obsessions: theories about time, meditations on women’s rights, an intelligent and detached look at the grotesque and, of course, a lot of talking. Moore is a wonderful storyteller, but he does tend to go on a bit, as in the chapter in which Sir William Gull takes his coachman around London discussing architectural history. From Hell isn’t so much a murder mystery as a police procedural that lays out who did it and why from the very beginning. It’s a tale of context rather than strict narrative, and if it doesn’t annoy you, it’ll enthrall you. Campbell’s etching-esque panels are atmospheric, but his scritchy-scratchy style, with characters’ faces obscured, is a similarly acquired taste. Thoughtful and measured, occasionally to a fault, From Hell endures for good reason, even if it’s destined to be a runner-up more often than a regular occupant of “best of” lists. (HB)
DC Comics, 2011
The crippling problem with characters and storylines that revolve around magic is that there’s no natural set of rules to lay down the score. If the infernal druid mage from the 8th circle of hell rears his tri-wand at a magic-wielding protagonist, the writer can just summon a mystical deus ex machina to wrap things up nicely. Fish-netted heroine Zatanna proves to be the poster child of this dilemma in her new series. She’s so ridiculously over-powered that watching her confront a spell-slinging baddie is about as suspenseful as a showdown between an ice cube and a sauna. The silver-age witch and reserve Justice Leaguer confronts an assortment of supernatural foes like she’s a peppier John Constantine, cracking witty asides in the face of trans-dimensional crisis. This isn’t much of a challenge for Zatanna—all she has to do is utter a phrase backwards and reality bends to her will. Unless she’s suffering from strep throat or battling God, few challenges are going to prevent a victory. Veteran writer Paul Dini nails the character’s alluring mix of snappy confidence and quiet vulnerability, but he’s going to have to stray into some more challenging territory to let this femme fatale show off her real magic. (SE)
Dark Horse Comics, 2011
There’s a long and storied tradition of comics based on movies being really horrible. Still, I’m a big fan of Danny McBride and the artist Sean Phillips, so I warily anticipated Dark Horse’s prequel to David Gordon Green’s upcoming fantasy parody Your Highness. Unfortunately it thoroughly lives down to that less-than-proud tradition. It’s split into two stories, each focusing on a different main character. The second story stars McBride and is the far better half, which isn’t saying a whole lot. McBride’s Thadeous, the irresponsible second son of a generic fantasy king, embarks on a diplomatic mission to the realm of the dwarves, where high-quality weed is fabled to grow in abundance. Thadeous is a stock McBride character, as selfish, mean-spirited, and mystifyingly arrogant as Kenny Powers, and his dialogue’s often pretty funny when you picture McBride saying it. McBride is already such a cartoon in real life that it’s not hard to hear his speech patterns and delivery while reading the comic. The first story focuses on the James Franco character, a boring Prince Valiant type who slays monsters and rescues princesses. It’s a humorless parody of Conan-style fantasy with serviceable art from Gabriel Guzman. Maybe James Franco, Justin Theroux, and the other actors from Your Highness could make this material work, but on the page it’s a lifeless slog. (GM)