A loud drumbeat of mainstream critical praise has made even casual observers aware of comics' maturation in recent decades, but some readers remain skeptical: Comics may not be kids' stuff anymore, but don't they still appeal to a narrow range of tastes? Well, no. Contemporary comics offer something for everyone, as a survey of titles released within the past few months clearly attests.
Daniel Clowes' "Wilson" (Drawn & Quarterly, 80 pages, $21.95), a black-comic portrait of an emotionally needy curmudgeon, is itself a case study in diversity, periodically shifting from flat full color to moody duotones to stark black-and-white and employing a full spectrum of cartooning styles that encompasses everything from big-foot exaggeration to subtle naturalism.
On the surface, the book appears to be a simple collection of one-page gag strips, often tracing the same dramatic arc: Wilson presses himself on a hapless bystander, discourses passionately on a subject, becomes enraged by a perceived failing in the person he's haranguing and then ends the "conversation" with an obscene insult.
Read individually and at random, many of these strips prove howlingly funny, but they also make up a larger narrative that's far more bleak than amusing, as Wilson copes with the death of his father and reconnects — in typically fraught and disastrous fashion — with his ex-wife and recently discovered daughter.
Most remarkably, Clowes manages the near-impossible by winning a real measure of sympathy for his outrageously provocative character. Far from the one-note caricature he initially seems, Wilson keeps revealing new, humanizing facets without ever abandoning his exasperating misbehavior and prickly nature.
Clowes ranks with Chris Ware and the Hernandez Brothers at the top of the alt-comics hierarchy, but there are now dozens of extraordinary cartoonists working regularly, and two other stalwarts of the literary graphic novel have also produced fine new books.
James Sturm's "Market Day" (Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $21.95) offers a richly detailed look at life in an Eastern European shtetl at the turn of the 20th century. Schlepping his artful hand-woven rugs to market, Mendleman finds his metaphoric cart suddenly upturned when he discovers that the discerning merchant who has long purchased his goods has turned over his shop to a bottom-line trader with no use for connoisseurship. Fearful he won't be able to support his pregnant wife, Mendleman spends a drunken night on the road home, beset by existential doubts.
Although a sober work, "Market Day's" overall gloom is relieved by earthy humor, and the gorgeous artwork, with its muted colors and evocative landscapes and street scenes, conjures a world as beautiful as it is believable.
Whereas Sturm reconstructs a realistic past, Jim Woodring's "Weathercraft" (Fantagraphics, 104 pages, $19.99) creates a fantastic alternative universe. Again using his stock company of characters — including upright, vaguely feline Frank, his boxlike pets Pushpaw and Pupshaw, and the porcine omnivore Manhog — Woodring constructs a nightmarish tale in which Manhog falls victim to the villainous depredations of the all-too-aptly named Whim and the spells of the witchy pair Betty and Veronica.
Those unfamiliar with the Woodring dreamscape may want to pick up "The Frank Book" collection as a primer, but the stand-alone "Weathercraft" requires no real prep work — just an openness to disturbing, id-derived imagery.
Mezzo and Pirus' "King of the Flies: 1. Hallorave" (Fantagraphics, 64 pages, $18.99) offers a different sort of nightmare scenario. Although "King of the Flies" — the first of a trilogy by French artist Pascal "Mezzo" Mesemburg and writer Michel Pirus — is anchored in a sharply delineated but deliberately generic suburbia, the book plunges us into an often violent, always profane environment that recalls David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." Using multiple narrators, the book is an intricately constructed series of interlocking short stories that acidly etch a disquieting portrait of modern alienation and unease.
Such despair over the human condition is scarcely unique to contemporary life, as Jacques Tardi's "It Was the War of the Trenches" (Fantagraphics, 122 pages, $24.99) demonstrates. French master Tardi gives an infantry-level view of World War I's meat-grinder carnage in grim vignettes that primarily keep tight, telling focus on the stories of individual soldiers. This is the third volume in Fantagraphics' English-translation series of Tardi's work — the first two, "West Coast Blues" and "You Are There," are expert, pitch-black noirs — and it deserves a place on the top shelf of graphic lit.
"It Was the War of the Trenches" makes exceptional use of Craftint — specially treated paper that produces depth effects and rich tonalities — to create an atmosphere of oppressive foreboding. Tardi's employment of the technique inevitably calls to mind Roy Crane, its acknowledged master, who perfected his Craftint use in the long-running Navy strip "Buz Sawyer."
Before moving in that more realistic direction, however, Crane also produced one of comics' purest entertainments, the Sunday-only "Captain Easy," which Fantagraphics Books has recently added to its exceptional roster of classic-strip reprints. Combining cartoony figure drawing and considerable humor with rousing adventure, "Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, Vol. 1" (132 pages, $39.99) exceeds even Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones films in exuberant action and breathless pace.
Some of Crane's less-celebrated contemporaries received belated recognition in Dan Nadel's revelatory collection "Art Out of Time," which unearthed a trove of hidden comic-strip treasures. In the new "Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980" (Abrams ComicArts, 304 pages, $40), Nadel attempts a similar excavation job in comic books, but he mostly discovers fool's gold.
Although Nadel makes an effort to connect the dots between the book's wildly disparate artists, his primary organizing principle appears to be "weird stuff I like." Some of the folks featured are widely admired, but the juvenile nature of the stories included here makes appreciating their considerable talent difficult.
The book does contain one genuine rediscovery — underground artist Michael McMillan — and other material has an undeniably freakish power, especially the accidental surrealism of H.G. Peter and outsider-art primitivism of Matt Fox.
St. Louis artist Matt Kindt's "Revolver" (Vertigo, 169 pages, $24.99) is a twisty mind-bender, with reluctant slacker hero Sam whip-sawed between parallel worlds — one in which he copes with mundane work- and love-related problems, the other in which he struggles with the world's apocalyptic collapse. Although the artwork sometimes looks rushed — proportions are off, detail is lacking — its quick-sketch feel is an appropriate match for the kinetic story.
Kindt gives props to his hometown by using St. Louis as one of the book's settings, although he oddly chooses to transpose two local institutions — the Post-Dispatch, where Sam works, and comic shop Star Clipper — to Chicago. "Revolver" also features some other eyebrow-raising elements — Kindt's grasp of newsroom dynamics is extremely tenuous — but the narrative's relentlessly propulsive drive speeds us past the occasional logical lapse.
Todd Hignite, editor of the journal "Comic Art," has departed St. Louis for Dallas, but that won't prevent us from giving a shout-out to his new "The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death" (Abrams Comic Arts, 224 pages, $40). This lavish coffee-table book relates Hernandez's biography, discusses his formative influences, dissects his stylistic evolution and, pre-eminently, displays his beautiful artwork to stunning effect.
Finally, St. Louisan Tim Lane's "Abandoned Cars" (Fantagraphics, 168 pages, $18.99), one of 2008's essential comics, has recently been reissued in paperback with two variant covers that vividly recall the lurid pulps of the 1930s. Lane will also appear regularly in Fantagraphics' anthology "Mome," beginning with the spring issue.
Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which presents the Stella Artois French Film Festival from Sept. 17-19.