There may never have been a humor comic as dense as Ben Katchor's "The Cardboard Valise" (Pantheon, $25.95). Published partly in alt-weeklies across the country, Katchor's opus -- which actually takes the form of a cardboard suitcase, with handles that fold out of the cover -- is like a big collection of old-fashioned stand-alone newspaper comic strips. There are a few recurring characters and themes from strip to strip but no overarching plot; the action, such as it is, takes place in unnamed cities or on Katchor's fictional Tensint Islands, as yuppie tourists endeavor to understand cultures similar to our own in only the most ridiculous ways. The draftsmanship is somewhere between "Krazy Kat" creator George Herriman and Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury").
What really sets Katchor apart from his peers is his gift for the slow burn. It takes several pages for the book's satirical atmosphere to settle in like a humorous fog, but when it does, the book's wonderful absurdity surrounds you. Katchor blurs the lines between the real world, where the upper classes seek out "slow" and "macrobiotic" food, and his own delightful archipelago, where gastronomes who have only known canned goods carefully indoctrinate their children into the wonder of the can opener. One character, Elijah Salamis, spends the book trying to reject everything man made, from clothing to language, and the results are about what you'd expect. In a particularly good strip, he exhorts readers to walk around in nothing but their underwear, casting off that great tool of oppression: clothes. "Brothers, you have nothing to lose but your pants," he reasons. Banksy said that first, right? Or maybe Dr. Seuss?
Can we please knock it off with the time-traveling incestuous interdimensional gadabouts attempting to save the world from their fathers while battling giant robots and Hindu-themed mutants? Or at the very least, if we must revisit this tired formula once again, let's make sure it's as fun as "Casanova: Luxuria" (Icon, $14.99), the latest from Marvel uberwriter Matt Fraction and star penciler Gabriel Ba. Ba, along with his brother, Fabio Moon (who draws the series' next story), has become something of an alt-superhero darling with his work on "Umbrella Academy." With Fraction at the helm of this ramshackle ship, he's free to draw all the weirdest things his heart desires, and the resulting story is both visually stunning and narratively satisfying. It's an improbably cute story, with a crafty, surreal kick to it.
Graphic lit purists have cheered the decline of superhero comics, but another genre has flooded the comics bookshelves: memoir. So it's no small thing to say that GB Tran's exploration of his Vietnamese heritage in "Vietnamerica" (Villard, $30) doesn't just distinguish itself; it sets a high-water mark for formal complexity and style. Tran's story of immigration is inseparable from the story of the Vietnam War. With a stunning palette and a gorgeous design sense, Tran creates vivid portraits of his family members, showing us his relatives' experiences as they're menaced by threats, such as the draft or parental abandonment. These forces slowly drive them across the ocean or into the grave, as Trans of various generations mistreat, adopt and relocate their children in an effort to create a better life in a country that is crumbling around them. One breathtaking full-page panel shows Vietnam on a map of the region as a giant crevasse into which screaming locals are falling. And, of course, bound up in all this is Tran's own life and his own journey -- from disinterested child of immigrant parents to cultural explorer.
Adrian Tomine's future is secure. Though the slice-of-life cartoonist has made his mark as a graphic novelist (and a New Yorker cover artist) many times over, he's managed to craft the perfect engagement party favor with "Scenes From an Impending Marriage" (Drawn & Quarterly, $9.95). The tiny volume is out just in time for wedding season, and it's certain to change hands over the course of many a nuptial shindig. Its plot is simple: The author recounts the difficulties he and his wife (of Japanese and Irish ancestry, respectively) worked through during their engagement, from managing the guest list to deciding between Taiko drums and bagpipes (in honor of cultural harmony, they choose neither). Tomine's influences are as appealing as they are unconventional: He pays homage to Charles Schulz and even Bil Keane ("The Family Circus") over the course of this short book, portraying himself as an overgrown child. The result is refreshingly humble and very, very funny.