50 YEARS OF PLAYBOY CARTOONS, by Gahan Wilson. Fantagraphics, 942 pp., $125.
'Bring in another!" says Santa to a quavering elf, wiping his fang-filled mouth with a bloody napkin and blithely ignoring the little pile of children's clothes next to his chair. Welcome to the world of Gahan Wilson, contributor of this and other unique visions to Playboy (and the New Yorker, among others) for five decades. Like Charles Addams and Gary Larson, Wilson (who turns 80 this year) makes us laugh by affirming all the things we're most afraid of. Actually, yes, your office's parent corporation is run by Satan himself. Worried about global warming? You oughta be - the dinosaurs will be back. And, of course, there are a great many things under your bed, all of whom wish you ill. Doesn't mean they're not good for a laugh, though.
Wilson gets praised for his writerly skill but, weirdly, his amazing drawing style tends to be overlooked. His characters look like complex balloon animals, and while he can create a perfect drawing of a bird out of odd shapes, he really shines with the grotesque creatures. Fantagraphics' mammoth box set gives readers a handsome package in which to view the artist's inimitable brand of weirdness and warmness, with additions like an "Index of Abhorations." Besides "Monsters," the only subject with more entries than "Death" and "Vampires" is "Claus, Santa." See also "Children," "Children in peril," and "Children, demented."
FOOTNOTES IN GAZA, by Joe Sacco. Metropolitan Books, 416 pp., $29.95.
With so many newspapers cutting foreign bureaus, readers who want really good, incisive war coverage will have to turn to Joe Sacco's cartoons. The author of "Palestine," "Safe Area Gorazde" and "The Fixer," Sacco specializes in forgotten or abandoned wars, and in "Footnotes in Gaza" he turns to the Israeli massacres of civilians in 1956 at Khan Younis and Rafah, two cities along the Gaza Strip, where history is being made even as he tries to dig up the past.
When he isn't visiting houses that are bulldozed pages later (the book was researched in 2002-03), Sacco is interviewing survivors of the '56 raids who only lived through them because they'd been shot so many times they were left for dead. Sacco's sympathy for his interviewees is a perfect counterpoint to the painfully objective way he questions every story he hears. Ultimately, he provides answers only with his intricate draftsmanship, recreating through photo-reference and written description every detail of the raids and their victims - sometimes again and again when stories contradict one other. The final, wordless sequence gives us his interviewees' terror at its rawest, and the book its perfect capstone.
BEANWORLD: REMEMBER HERE WHEN YOU ARE THERE!, by Larry Marder. Dark Horse, 216 pp., $19.95.
Wahoolazuma! Larry Marder's celebrated indie comic "Beanworld" returns to shelves in all its offbeat glory a mere 17 years after the now-defunct Eclipse comics shipped its then-final issue in 1993. Marder subtitled the series "A Most Peculiar Comic Book Experience," and he was absolutely correct: "Beanworld" is partly a fantasy book and partly a deep examination of the systems of everyday life. There's a militarily inclined bean, named Mr. Spook; an artist bean, named Beanish, and their scientist pal, Professor Garbanzo. Through the eyes of these three, "Beanworld" sheds light on the bizarre and complex ways all the beans get along. It looks at times like a science textbook written by J.K. Rowling, and that's OK: It makes its own special brand of sense.
PICTURES THAT TICK, by Dave McKean. Dark Horse, 184 pp., $19.95.
There's nothing quite like a Dave McKean drawing. Er, painting. Well, maybe collage is a better word. Let's just say that there's nothing quite like Dave McKean. The artist, probably best known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman ("Mr. Punch," "The Wolves in the Walls") doesn't write superhero stories or introspective memoirs. He writes fiction in the way that Jonathan Carroll or David Mitchell do: confidently, and with a sense of direction that runs totally counter to his free-form drawing style. With blurred photo negatives or digital collages or just good, old-fashioned line drawings, McKean's stories convey a deeply adult sense of the world - why it's sometimes sad, and why it's almost always hilariously funny. The new Dark Horse paperback reprints the frustratingly limited Allen Spiegel Fine Arts edition from 2001, but one wishes they'd paid McKean the compliment of re-copy editing the volume. Still, the book is a wonderful introduction to one of the most talented visual artists working, and a primer for anyone who wants to attempt his Joycean epic, "Cages."