Bookshelf: New comics and graphic novels
Everyone, no matter what side they are on, suffers -- this is the story of every war. It's certainly the story of the Boxer Rebellion, chronicled by Gene Luen Yang in his deceptively simple graphic novel "Boxers & Saints" (First Second, $34.99 two-volume boxed set), which was long-listed for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature last week. By turns exciting and horrifying and frequently both at once, "Boxers" (book one) is the brightly colored, anime-inflected story of a Chinese peasant named Little Bao who becomes a superheroic warrior on behalf of the "boxers" -- the Brotherhood of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a sort of turn-of-the-last-century Justice League of peasants who become (or perhaps merely see themselves as) the avatars of Chinese folk heroes and gods.
They travel the countryside battling foreigners who threaten the Chinese way of life ... including many friends and benefactors of Four-Girl, a young village woman who converts to Christianity and serves as the protagonist of "Saints," a much more ruminative, earth-toned meditation on individual spirituality. Where Little Bao sees his family's gods, Four-Girl has visions of Joan of Arc; and where he is called to action, she is called to sacrifice. The ambitious story structure renders no one unsympathetic, and Yang's laser-precise line work belies the compelling imprecision with which his characters approach their impossible choices.
I went into a comic book store the other day and was told by the student manning the cash register that a small gray-haired man had come in with his French wife the day before, introducing himself as the creator of The Garbage Pail Kids. This sounds about right for Art Spiegelman, the New Yorker cover artist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Maus," and, yes, creator of The Garbage Pail Kids, among many, many other accomplishments. "Co-Mix" (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95), a retrospective of Spiegelman's body of work, has that self-deprecating sense of humor on display on every page, along with a gratifyingly broad sampling of the guy's artwork. Several, like the hilarious mini-comic "Two-Fisted Painters" and a couple of his most impressive lithographs, are reprinted at full size -- a happy surprise. Most of all, though, the overview of Spiegelman's career emphasizes what a sterling critic and historian he is. The graphic essay on Charles Schulz and Peanuts is worth the cover price all by itself. Of the trendy coffee-table books about cartoonists, this is easily the best out there.
Every couple of years, DC Comics makes a serious effort to distinguish itself in the art world, and "Solo" ($49.99) is certainly a convincing argument on behalf of its dozen creators (see also the company's "Wednesday Comics"). Originally run as a 12-issue serial, each episode is devoted entirely to a single artist, who, with or without writing collaborators, gets to do whatever he wants with the DC stable of characters: Paul Pope writes a great story about Jack Kirby creation Kamandi; Mike Allred does a very funny riff on the 1960s Batman TV show; Teddy Kristiansen draws a poignant Deadman story from a script by Neil Gaiman. Some artists are at their best when riffing on their own material -- the awe-inspiring Sergio Aragones retells episodes from Japanese and Mexican history to great effect -- and others do surprising things with classic characters. The only artist totally new to me is the astounding Damion Scott, who writes what may be the volume's most compelling story: with graffiti-inflected marker drawings, Scott tells the tale of a convenience store holdup in which the store owner kills the robber in the heat of the moment ... and Batman takes the owner to prison.
It's been six years since the last "Age of Bronze" collection -- so long that it seemed that writer-artist Eric Shanower had abandoned the project. And who would have blamed him? This ambitious retelling of the story of the Trojan Wars (that's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," with a wide range of other sources) would intimidate anyone. So praise Zeus, Hera and the rest of the gods that we finally have "Age of Bronze: Betrayal, Part Two." (Image Comics, $28.99). The volume focuses on doomed lovers Troilus and Cressida, a story that gave even Shakespeare some trouble. Shanower's greatest gift, though, is clarity, and with vivid drawings and a mania for period detail, he teases the human drama out of the political snarl its principals have created. By the time the story comes to its inevitable, tragic conclusion, Shanower barely needs to use words at all -- Cressida's devastating departure at the tale's end is mostly silent, and all the more powerful.