The concept behind Bryan Lee O'Malley's terrific "Scott Pilgrim" series is pure brain candy: Canadian slacker Scott is battling his girlfriend's ex-boyfriends in successive duels to the death. No wonder there's already a movie out. But it's O'Malley's insight into the trials and tribulations of a just-barely-making-it 20-something that makes the series so compulsively readable, and it's O'Malley's visual dexterity that makes it worth reading again and again.
Rather than concealing its big ideas under layers of dialogue or hinting at them with symbolism, O'Malley's themes are on the surface in big, obvious captions: "SCOTT EARNED THE POWER OF UNDERSTANDING!" over our hero's realization that his romantic rival is a lot like him, or "CLOSURE!" over a hug between Scott and his ex. You may roll your eyes, but this is pretty much an accepted trope with the books' target readership - after all, it's how video games tell us we've fulfilled their requirements and can progress to the next level.
In the final volume, "Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour" (Oni Press, $11.99) O'Malley's magnum opus comes to its conclusion with more than a touch of sentimentality, but it's important not to ignore the book's literary merits just because it's a bit gooey around the edges. With the series, O'Malley has answered accusations that his generation of artists is a mile wide and an inch deep, and he's done it by using objects of traditionalist scorn - manga, video games, pop music - to build a whole new emotional language for comics.
It's the rare superhero comic that can be justly praised for its great beauty, but "Wednesday Comics" (DC Comics, $49.99) is one of them. Editor Mark Chiarello put together the oversized tome, made up of 15 main stories about DC characters from Batman to The Demon, written and drawn by the company's best and brightest. The artists' work ranges from merely excellent to breathtaking, with standout contributions from "Adam Strange" writer-artist Paul Pope, penning an old-fashioned spaceman adventure story; "Metamorpho" artist Mike Allred, working with a clever Indiana Jones-style script by Neil Gaiman; and war comics legend Joe Kubert, drawing a gritty "Sergeant Rock" strip from his son Andy's script. It's a gorgeous artifact in an appropriately huge format - DC has shrunk the pages only slightly from their original broadsheet-newspaper size, so good luck finding bookshelf space for it.
Eddie Campbell may be the single least flashy artist in the history of the comics medium, but he is unquestionably one of the finest. With writer Daren White, Campbell's "The Playwright" (Top Shelf Comix, $14.95) employs deceptively simple ink-and-watercolor frames to communicate the ugly balance of vanity, lust and priggishness that leads its protagonist into unattached middle age. The playwright himself - never named - is first seen daydreaming about a pretty girl sitting across from him on the bus, but as we get to know him better, we see that he's never really had any kind of relationship at all. It's only when his mentally disabled brother must move in with him that he begins to discover human contact - first with his brother, and then, tentatively, with his brother's nurse. Campbell and White border on genius in their depiction of their antihero's emotional thaw - though we see all of the Playwright's lurid fantasies, the delicate relationship that saves him from loneliness sneaks up on us, just as surely as it does on him.
An undisputed triumph of marketing over substance, Janet and daughter Alex Evanovich's "Troublemaker" (Dark Horse Books, $17.99) has topped the Graphic Books bestseller list for several weeks running. If I've got this right, it's about a young woman who may be 15 or may be in her 20s - hard to tell from artist Joëlle Jones' depiction - and is trying to rescue a friend who appears to have been kidnapped by voodoo cultists. Aiding her is her dishy boyfriend (fiance? hot date? high school chum?). The script appears to have been written by someone who's never read a comic book, the art looks like it was dashed off in an afternoon, and the plotting is lazy, lazy, lazy. Not every bestselling writer is this cynical - Stephen King's "Dark Tower" comics from Marvel are terrific - but Evanovich and her team must see the medium as a license to print money and not much else.