"Sometimes in life when we are very sad, it is good to make a chicken in winter," explains Lynda Barry in "Picture This" (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95). "It is not a beautiful chicken, but it is a chicken that will guard you through the hours and hours, quietly." Barry's style is supremely strange - she sketches and glues on glitter; she paints and cuts out pieces of construction paper and scribbles and makes paper dolls for us. Somehow, the delicate composition of all these childish novelties produces a work - it's hard to call it a graphic novel, since there's not really a narrative as such. It's almost a self-help book, with offbeat suggestions for feeling better (Barry includes a chicken you can trace, if you don't feel up to drawing one yourself); fabulous anecdotes involving her most famous character, a little girl named Marlys; and images of the Near-Sighted Monkey, a free spirit whose depiction seems to be a visually unflattering but deeply brave and funny portrait of the author as a young woman - er, primate.
Chris Ware never met a charisma-free jerk he didn't love. Consider "Rusty Brown," the biography of a jobless loser whose 1970s childhood proved unexpectedly fertile and funny material in his ongoing Acme Novelty Library series. Now, with "Jordan Wellington Lint" in Acme Novelty Library #20 (Drawn and Quarterly, $23.95), Ware examines one of Rusty's high school acquaintances, Jason Lint. (The character changes his name - it's a little confusing.)
The book's opening pages may be the best thing Ware's ever done: He follows Jason from zygote to toddler to teenager in a visual homage to James Joyce that brilliantly captures what it's like to be discovering so many new words and concepts at once. Since it's a Chris Ware book, Jason is also discovering emotional pain around the same time, as he watches his father hit his mother and tries to suss out the moral implications. Ware spends a lot of his time - and ours - examining the most painful moments in Jason's life. Some of these are genuinely affecting - his mother's death, for instance - and some are just unpleasant. Acme #20 is a gorgeous book, no doubt about it, but it sticks in the heart.
Is there a comic that's run longer than "Love & Rockets" and maintained the same level of quality? In a bid to keep this indie mainstay accessible to new readers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez relaunched the series as "Love & Rockets: New Stories" (Fantagraphics, $14.99) a few years ago; like Ware and other contemporaries, they've been producing large volumes about once a year, and this year's annual is as good or better than anything Los Bros. have yet produced. It starts off with a strange sci-fi story - fans will recognize this as one of Rosalba "Fritz" Martinez's many B-movies, but you don't have to be in on the gag to find Gilbert's story weird and funny and disturbing. Jaime's contribution to the volume is a story about would-be couple Maggie and Ray having a first date, with an interstitial tale about Maggie's childhood that sheds heartbreaking light on her relationship with her brother. These vignettes are the perfect foil to Ware's unflinching realism - where Ware is pitiless and visually complex, Los Bros. are plain-spoken and sympathetic, finding pathos in even the grimiest character.
Speaking of grime, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson pound out a much different story about human foibles with "Astro City: The Dark Age" (two volumes from DC Comics, $29.99 each). Busiek's lovingly crafted superhero universe recalls all the old Marvel and DC standbys without copying a single character. His superhero team, the First Family, is part Challengers of the Unknown, part Fantastic Four, but it's his talent for character development that makes this "Astro City" story such a terrific read. For years, Busiek has made a specialty of sending us home with his minor characters - people who'd be played by extras in a big-budget superhero movie. Here, he follows two African-American brothers growing up in New York during the 1970s and coming to crisis during the 1980s, not unlike the superhero stories of that period. As the heroes "protecting" them get darker and more troubled, Royal and Charles Williams have to figure out how to get along in a New York that's lost its postwar sheen and is starting to resemble the city's "Taxi Driver" years. There's also the conflict between Charles and Royal, who have to look out for each other and decide how to live with the knowledge that a superhero contributed to their parents' deaths. If it sounds a little melodramatic, that's all right. Busiek and underrated illustrator Anderson work the proceedings out with such careful precision that the climax is both deeply validating and anything but predictable.