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When I was a kid, I only got to go to the comic shop once every few months. My mom would drive me out there, drop me off, and pick me up a couple hours later. In those blissful hours, I had to decide how to spend my accumulated allowance money, which usually totaled no more than $25 or so. Yet I was in heaven. I would spend the entire time literally on my hands and knees scouring through every long box like a miner during the Gold Rush. It was the lure of discovery that I loved, the prospect of finding something new and exciting, an artist I liked or an issue I was missing to complete a mini-series. I didn't keep track of "the industry" and had no idea what issues had come out since my last visit. It was the simple joy of the unknown that sparked my excitement.

In today's comics world there are no surprises left. Instead, we have Previews, Wizard Magazine, Comic Shop News, The Pulse, Newsarama and dozens of other news and previews sites (CBG included) promoting the coming attractions. Today we are a culture of consumer addicts, smothered in hype, and the innocent thrill of those days when I could walk into the comic shop without any preconceived notions (or pull lists) are gone forever.

So, it was that much more exciting to find Alex Robinson's new book Tricked last week, a book that I had heard literally nothing about it, and one which is on the short list of best graphic novels I've read this year.

By Alex Robinson
Published by Top Shelf Comics, $19.95 USD
Sample Page

Tricked is an investment in time. Weighing in at 350 pages, this is, along with Blankets, Epileptic and very few others, a work truly fitting of the term graphic NOVEL. What's even more fascinating is that in those 350 pages, there is not one cape, gun, robot, zombie, monster, alien, sword, spaceship or bursting E-cup. This is a human story, with some of the most richly developed characters you're likely to find in a comic book.

Four years in the making, Tricked, like the recent movie Crash (still the front runner for best screenplay of the year, in my opinion), follows six very different characters, leading very separate lives. Each character has a clear motivation, and their personalities are so well developed, they are instantly engaging. There's the aging rock star, longing for a hit to recapture the glory days of his rise to stardom, the young girl who travels to the city seeking her estranged father, the eccentric who struggles to keep the voices in his head at bay and the overweight waitress, who seeks love despite her insecurities.

One of the story's greatest strengths is Robinson's incredible ear for dialogue. His character's conversations sound so natural, using not only the language of words on the page, but the visual language of bodily and facial expressions, that the reader is compelled into their stories. For two of the characters, Robinson also uses an inner monologue which is both a fascinating insight to the character's motivations, and provides an extremely well-written portrait of the two main protagonists' inner most thoughts.

I have heard a few complaints in the past that Robinson's artwork, particularly in his mammoth first graphic novel, Box Office Poison, was ugly, or at the very least, inaccessible, but in Tricked, the artwork is much tighter. Robinson's polished inkwork is free of the frenetic exaggerated tics that plagued some of his earlier stories. On the sample page, you can see how Robinson's body language and anatomy conveys the awkwardness of the scene (a pickup in the rain), and the character's emotional reactions. Tricked is a complex, ambitious, intelligent book, and one that I think would appeal to readers of other such ambitious narratives like Palomar and Locas. Highly recommended.

Grade: 5 out of 5

The Wolves in the Walls
By Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Published by HarperTrophy Books, $6.99 USD
Sample Page

In which yet another Gaiman and McKean collaboration explores strange, somewhat mystical circumstances involving young children, animals and coincidences both bizarre and fantastic. With each partnership, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that the magic is not so much in the tales themselves, but the chemistry between the two creators. Like Lennon and McCartney, Gaiman and McKean have that rare relationship, two artists with a singular vision. Gaiman seems to bring out the best in McKean, sparking his considerable imagination with stories that, if nothing else, are always predominately visual, while McKean seems able to capture on paper the most fascinating and disturbing details from Gaiman's fantastical stories. This particular book is a creepy little children's fable about a family displaced from their home by a pack of wolves that emerge from within the walls of the house. Exiled to their garden, the family must discover a way back into their home, though only Lucy, the daughter whose intelligence seems to exceed the other three family members combined, is committed to retrieving their house, rather than abandoning it for far off shores. I didn't love the story, the text seemed a little flowery, but then that's Gaiman. The true attraction here, as always, is McKean's incredible, multi-media artwork, which mixes illustration and photography in a cauldron of Photoshop layers. There is no one quite like McKean, and if you're a fan of either creator, you should definitely check this out. It's only $7 and McKean's full color artwork is worth the price alone.

Grade: 4 out of 5

Drawn & Quarterly Showcase Book Three Anthology featuring Genevieve Elverum, Sammy Harkham and Matt Broersma
Published by Drawn & Quarterly, $14.95 USD
Sample Page

This is another outstanding collection of up-and-coming cartoonists from perhaps the industry's premier art comics publisher. Here we are introduced to three new artists and each contribution is outstanding. The book opens with a piece by newcomer and cover artist Genevieve Elverum, whose ethereal tale of a young mother wandering through the tundra is both gorgeous and poetic. Elverum uses visual metaphors throughout this piece, mixing symbols of motherhood and love amidst her dreamlike tale. Her richly drawn watercolor artwork is sharp and striking. In the sample page, look at how Elverum draws questions using sign language, placing a single word in each corner of the page. It's an interesting technique mimicking very well the slow, broken pacing of actual sign language. The intricate latticework on this page also demonstrates Elverum's incredible sense of design and symmetry which pervades her work. As first impressions go, this was an outstanding debut, and further evidence that more and more intelligent artists are finding their voices through the medium of graphic novels.

Sammy Harkham, the editor and publisher of the outstanding Kramer's Ergot anthologies, contributes Somersaulting, a wistful tale of teenage angst set against the backdrop of a nameless Midwestern suburb. Harkham's story has many stylistic similarities with Kevin Huizenga, but artistically most resembles Chester Brown, who Harkham sites as a major influence in the bio preceding the story. His rigid use of the 9 grid page allows Harkham to control the pacing as he chronicles a summer break spent filled with casual sex, drinking and generally wasting time. It's a sensitive, insightful story and shows a keen sense of character development.

Finally, the issue ends on a high note, with Matt Broersma's fascinating The Last Voyage of Dr. Frobisher. Dr. Frobisher is a ghost, but the circumstances of his murder have trapped him in the mundane world, rather than allowing him his final respite. So, the Doctor takes matters into his own hands, orchestrating a series of events to finally bring about the peace he seeks. Broersma follows this tale with the preceding chapter, chronicling the life and death of Dr. Frobisher and his encounter with Malvern Yoshimoto, a famed British journalist and adventurer. Broersma's art is reminiscent of Jacque Tardi (see The Bloody Streets of Paris) mixed with a little Richard Sala influence, though his characters are more anatomically defined than Sala's. As with Elverum, this too is an outstanding debut, demonstrating both Broersma's cartooning and storytelling sensibilities. As always, this annual release delivers on its promise of introducing some of the brightest young cartoonists to a broader audience. Highly recommended.

Grade: 5 our of 5

Chiaroscuro: the Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci By David Rawson, Pat McGreal, Chas Truog and Rafael Kayanan
Published by DC Comics Vertigo, $2.95 USD each
Sample Page

I doubt I'm the only one with boxes full of unread comics I bought years ago. I used to tell myself that someday I would finally get around to reading them, but in the meantime, the new stuff continues to pile up on my nightstand. So a few weeks ago, you'll recall, I dug out the entire Grant Morrison run on Animal Man from my archives. Not only did it save me some money on new issues, but it was a lot of fun to rediscover the great comics of my youth. So once again this week, I dug through my collection and decided to finally read this 10 issue Vertigo maxi-series from the mid-nineties. Despite my initial expectations, this was surprisingly enjoyable. For one thing, the writers, Pat McGreal and David Rawson, did a tremendous amount of historical research into da Vinci's life, his travels, his artwork and his associations. They then took great liberties in creating this historical fiction account of the Maestro, as told by his ungrateful apprentice Salai. Salai, though little is known about him, was believed to have been a street urchin who da Vinci rescued from a life of begging, and quickly fell in love with him, raising him as his own son. Though Salai tried, he was unable to give up his commoner habits, and over the years, grew to resent da Vinci's high class world and became a great source of angst and sorrow for the artist.

Like Animal Man, Chiaroscuro is also penciled by Chas Truog, but here, the pages are so much better, it's hard to believe they were drawn by the same artist. Much of the responsibility for this lies no doubt with inker Rafael Kayanan, who brings Truog's pencils to life with a much cleaner line, adding more detail to everything from backgrounds and panel borders to close-up facial expressions. Colorist Carla Feeny also adds a depth and beauty to the story that was largely unnoticed in Animal Man, though this is perhaps due to the overwhelming strength of Grant Morrison's scripts. At any rate, the artwork here is far better than Truog's previous effort, and the artist should be further credited for the expansive amount of historical research into settings and fashion, which add a tremendous sense of place to the story. This series also featured some of Vertigo's first model-based covers by Richard Bruning, with actors in medieval costumes portraying the characters, and though in many subsequent efforts I found this approach unappealing, here it worked nicely for the simple reason that the story's character's themselves were so compelling. DC has announced plans to finally collect Chiaroscuro into a trade paperback which should hit stores sometime in late October of this year and I would strongly recommend picking this up. It takes a couple issues to draw you in, but it's one of the more compelling stories I've read from the Vertigo line in recent memory.

Grade: 4 out of 5

-- Marc Sobel

Send review copies to:
Marc Sobel
24-05 27th Street Apt. #4B
Astoria, NY, 11102

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