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Comics: new books from Ben Katchor, Matt Kindt

"Hand-Drying in America" by Ben Katchor (Pantheon, March 2013) Credit: Handout

When it comes to getting attention, pulp comics such as Mark Waid and Leinil Yu's current run on "The Indestructible Hulk" have an advantage over posh literary graphic endeavors you usually see on "Best of the Year" lists. You already know the characters, you've heard the story before and a good cartoonist can shunt you from one high-speed set-piece to the next without bothering to explain much.

Enter Paul Pope, one of the very few cartoonists whose own work is every bit as compelling, hypercaffeinated and vigorous as his work-for-hire stuff at DC and Marvel. Pope's new collection, "The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts" (Image Comics, $29.99), pulls together a half-dozen narrative short stories, one lengthy sci-fi novella and a dozen quick riffs -- a girl walking against a tide of bicycles, a chunk of Sophocles' "Antigone" rendered in beautiful, quick strokes.

The collection is a sight for sore eyes; as quickly as the work reads, it clearly takes a long time to produce, and big volumes of it are few and far between.

This one is still years ahead of its time, and as good a book of energetic stories as you could ask for.


Speaking of high pulp, the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan's fantasy-inflected kitchen-sink space opera, "Saga" (Image Comics, $9.99), is altogether different. It's the story of a man and a woman who flee from both sides of an interplanetary war with their newborn child in tow. It's a given that the kid survives -- she's the narrator -- but Vaughan keeps the reader guessing with a series of wild reversals and a bounty hunter antihero who keeps getting closer to our star-crossed couple.

There's some sex and quite a bit of violence here, but "Saga" manages to stay whimsical without becoming twee. Vaughan is playing by his own rules -- the two alien worlds are filled with multilegged or horned creatures and ruled by robots with televisions for heads, but housewives still buy romance novels at the supermarket and rocket ships still look like rockets, though sometimes they grow on trees.

It helps immeasurably that series artist Fiona Staples is where-have-you-been-all-my-life good, both at composition and at storytelling.

Time will tell whether Vaughan has bitten off more than he can chew here -- his fantasy world is either totally ad hoc or incredibly complex -- but thus far, "Saga" is a delight.


Matt Kindt isn't writing a pulp story, exactly, but he's certainly in love with pulp trappings in his new graphic novel, "Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes" (First Second, $26.99). It's a volume of short stories that slowly turns into a novel as the same secondary characters start to show up in larger and larger roles from one story to the next. "Red Handed" starts out with the theft of an electric chair and progresses into funnier and odder territory almost immediately. Foiling each offbeat offense is hard-nosed Detective Gould, who appears in black-and-white (get it?) interstitial comic strips framed like paste-ups in a pre-digital newspaper.

He looks a lot like Dick Tracy, the cartoon detective drawn by Chester Gould, and in seemingly unrelated strips called "Tess's True Heart," we get the slow-burn story of a woman named Tess (Dick Tracy's ladylove: Tess Trueheart). It may be the only book in history to pull references from both newspaper comics and the poetry of William Carlos Williams.


Ben Katchor, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, lampoons our shallowest preoccupations so skillfully that half the laughs in his terrific collection, "Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories" (Pantheon, $29.95), come from realizing you've done more or less the same absurd thing the cartoonist has taken to its logical extreme. Katchor pokes fun at the inherent misanthropy of consumerism, and he has a terrific one-pager called "Hatred House," about a time when trends have shifted -- very slightly, if you think about it -- to emphasize the provenance and pedigree of one's brutal home security system ("The razor wire is from Italy"). In another, "The Solilo-Queeter," a $79 cellphone service allows you to place one-way calls on which your target can only listen; Katchor rounds it out with a little travesty of Shakespeare (". . . the Colorado Springs and pharaohs of contagious fortune . . .").

Katchor's previous collections have been black, white and gray; "Hand-Drying in America" is his first volume in color, and the pigment adds dimension everywhere you look. It's the sum of four years' worth of piecework, but it's sharper still than the sum of its barbed parts.

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