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Ordinary Victories
By Manu Larcenet
Published by NBM/Comics Lit, $15.95 USD

This is the best book of the year so far! Better than Epileptic. Better than Project Superior. Better than Bluesman. And for NBM, it's by far their best offering since A Jew in Communist Prague. Marco is a frustrated photographer who's lost his passion for his art, his therapy and everything else in his life. Stricken by debilitating panic attacks, annoyed with his parents' nagging, and struggling, despite himself, to maintain a relationship he desperately needs, Marco withdraws to the French countryside for some fresh air and time alone with his cat. But when he encounters a mysterious neighbor with a hidden past, Marco is forced to confront his feelings about his own father. Marco, moreso than any character since Jimmy Corrigan, comes to life on the page. Larcenet has created a character of extraordinary depth, one I could not only relate to, but felt as if his struggles were my own. Marco's few narrative insights ("Obviously I love my parents, but our relationship has been an utter failure") are brilliantly presented with his photographs, creating an immediacy into both the character's art and his deepest fears. Larcenet also controls the story pacing perfectly, with pages often ending with a mini-revelation or lingering emotional chord, while still compelling the plot forward. His dialogue is crisp and natural, a particular feat since this was presumably translated from French. And the artwork is simply gorgeous. Rather than try to describe how beautiful it is, check out the preview at NBM's website. Larcenet's simple style is reminiscent of Dupuy and Berberian's Drawn & Quarterly anthology collaborations, though perhaps more detailed, with each panel beautifully colored. But it's his character designs, each unique, energetic and original, that stand out. Even Adolf, Marco's moody cat, is given tremendous personality with simple body language and expressions. Ordinary Victories is a story rich with emotional depth, honesty and a flawed character who is both relatable and likeable, without providing any easy answers. This is simply an outstanding graphic novel, the kind that reminds me why I love this artform, and serves as yet more evidence of how much further along the maturity spectrum European comics are when compared to the mostly stilted American market. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Grade: 5/5

Lore #1-5
By T. P. Louise and Ashley Wood
Published by IDW Publishing, $5.99 USD each

Lore drew me in because I'm a fan of Ashley Wood's surrealistic fully painted artwork. It doesn't always work for me, but the fully painted first issue looked sharp and stylish. I'd never heard of writer T. P. Louise before, but given the high production values and beautiful covers, I figured it was worth taking a look. I really enjoyed the first three issues. The plot focuses on Jonathan Bradley, an occultist who is a member of a secret society of "Shepherds" who mind the passages between the nether world and our own. A series of incidents involving fairy tale monsters coming to life and attacking people at random drive the action. It's not the most original concept, but I found the narration, which shifts from Jonathan Bradley's diaries to his daughter's exploits seamlessly, to be well crafted and generally interesting. But then, for some unknown reason, the series underwent a drastic format change. The fourth issue was almost completely prose, with 42 pages of typed text and only six pages of artwork. This seemed excessive, and I admit my interest waned, having largely been drawn to the art in the first place, but I figured maybe this was just a one off issue. However, issue five followed with the exact same format. What makes this worse is that IDW has printed this book on highly expensive, photo glossy paper, which was great when Ashley Wood's art was being showcased, but seems overpriced and unnecessary for page after page of text. The story is entertaining enough, but at $5.99 an issue, I'm probably not going to stick around to find out what happens. Grade: 3.5/5

Hoax #1 By Various
Published by Mental Note Press, $2.95 USD

If there were an Eisner award for Best Cover, Hoax #1 would get my vote. The innovative "crosscomic cover jam" unfolds like a Scrabble board, with each of the five artists building off each other's strips. The effect is innovative and the interplay between artists is so well done, I bought this issue on the strength of the cover alone, with no prior knowledge of any of the contributors. The good news is that the interiors were equally satisfying. Hoax is an independent anthology along the same lines as Blood Orange or the early Top Shelf collections, although these artists hit their strides much sooner out of the gate. "Yolk," the opening piece by Eleanor Davis, follows a fairly typical loner from his living room to a party where he inadvertently hooks up with a drunken woman. It's mildly reminiscent of a Joe Matt adventure, and though the art is not as spectacular as Matt's, it's solid enough and Davis captures a somber tone throughout. "Reality Blvd: Terminal," by Karl Kressbach is a gorgeous piece of surrealism. The McKeanesque art's intricate detail and energy more than make up for its lack of story. But the standout piece in the book is Nate Neal's "American Protest," a rambling journalistic diary of political protests in 2004. The story follows his gonzo-journalist narrator through the tumultuous streets and backwoods of Savannah, Georgia, as he chronicles his journey and ultimate disillusionment with the political left's disorganized, passionless rants. It's interesting, not so much for any particular political statement, but rather as a character study of one man's slow erosion of faith in government. Neal also demonstrates a clear understanding of narrative pacing and perspective, and fills his panels with an incredible amount of peripheral detail. The final installment is an illustrated essay on "Cannibalism" by Lydia Gregg that, while somewhat on the academic side, delivers some interesting observations, as well as some disturbing visuals. At $2.95 for 48 pages, Hoax is well worth skipping some mediocre DC/Marvel title for the week and supporting some creators who are clearly pushing the envelope on graphic storytelling. Grade: 4.5/5

Sin City: That Yellow Bastard
By Frank Miller
Published by Dark Horse, $15.00 USD

In the last week I've both re-read this graphic novel and watched the movie. Not surprisingly, I liked the graphic novel much better. Not to say that I didn't enjoy Bruce Willis as Hartigan, or the striking comic book visuals the movie re-created on the screen, but the graphic novels still surpass the film in my opinion. Though I've only read about half of the Sin City "yarns," this is the best of the ones I've read, and in particular seems to be a high point for Miller artistically. His use of heavy blacks and harsh lighting are more detailed and defined in this story than others, and his art overall appear less cluttered than some of the early Sin City books. The story is also the best of the ones I've read, with Hartigan's relentless defense of young Nancy Callahan bordering on obsession. Miller's use of yellow to depict the villain is one of the most effective mono-color techniques I've seen in comics and perfectly captures that putrid quality that the character is supposed to have. The ending to That Yellow Bastard is also fittingly dark, but in the graphic novel, the pacing of the last sequence is simply masterful, using double page spreads and sound effects to leave the reader breathless. In the movie, this same ending lost much of its impact. With Dark Horse re-releasing all of the Sin City tales in upscale formats, if you're looking to sample one for the first time and aren't sure which one is best, I'd recommend That Yellow Bastard. It's an outstanding example of graphic literature. Grade: 4.5/5

Found Magazine #1
By Various
Published by Found Magazine, $15.00 USD

This is not a comic book. It's not even a graphic novel. It contains very few illustrations and its use of sequential storytelling techniques is limited. You probably won't even find it in comic book stores. Yet Found Magazine is something that I suspect will appeal to a lot of comic book fans. It's basically a magazine that collects and publishes "found art." What is found art? Well, it could literally be anything from discarded to-do lists to abandoned journals, from old photographs to angry letters. Check out the "find of the week" for a sample of the magazine's contents. The unifying principal is that "found art" offers glimpses into human interaction without providing the wider context of story. It's an interesting concept that the publishers of the magazine exploit well. Each piece is accompanied by a short description of where and when the item was found, and the finder's reactions or thoughts. The pieces selected for print in the initial issue offer glimpses of individuals that are desperate, lonely, horny, bored, angry, frustrated or just overwhelmed with responsibility, while leaving the reader to wonder who these people are, in what context their writing was created, and what happened afterward. Of particular interest to comics fans is the main interview with cartoonist/novelist Lynda Barry, who discusses her own personal found art collection, and how found art has influenced her work over the years. It was an insightful interview, essential for Barry fans, and made me want to start my own collection. The piece also includes several reprints of Barry's Marlys strips that address the theme of found art. If you're looking for something different, that provides honest snapshots of the diversity of life in a well-designed package, this is worth checking out. Grade: 4/5

-- Marc Sobel



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