Thursday, January 31, 2008

Longer Game Bytes are coming to win us; they're coming to win us

"Heroes of Mana"
Square Enix, for Nintendo DS, rated E 10+ for ages 10 and up, $39.99.

Square Enix attempts to go the real-time strategy route with this isometric-styled role-playing game. Unfortunately, what should be a hole-in-one for the company suffers from a number of problems. For one thing, the view of the battlefield is severely limited, to the point that it's often difficult to locate your troops. The bland characters and story don't help matters much either, making "Heroes" a rather dour disappointment.

"Brain Age 2"
Nintendo, for Nintendo DS, rated E for Everyone, $19.99.

Anyone who has played the first "Brain Age" game knows what to expect with the sequel: quick, challenging activities like unscrambling words and performing simple math equations designed to fire up your prefrontal cortex and improve your memory. That, and lots of Sudoku.

Despite the familiarity, the individual challenges are entertaining enough, and the price is low enough, to be worthwhile to fans of the first game or those just looking for a quick fix before they get back to the real world.

"Hot Pixel"
Atari, for PlayStation Portable, rated T for Teen, $29.99.

This is one of the most blatant and derivative rip-offs of the "WarioWare" franchise I've ever seen, only with an annoying urban hipster filling in for Wario.

As with the Nintendo series, you are hurried through a series of oddball mini-games that must be completed before time runs out.

Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, "Pixel" fails to measure up to the genius of its inspiration. While I like the pixilated art aesthetic, the games are too dull to be worthy of your time.

"Mega Man Star Force Pegasus"
Capcom, for the DS, rated E, $29.99.

Despite the new characters, storyline and 3-D battle graphics, this latest "Mega Man" iteration plays virtually identical to every single other "Mega Man" game that's come out for the DS in the last few years. Whether that's a good thing depends on your tolerance for this sort of turn-based, futuristic, kid-friendly rpg. I enjoyed it, but more as a diversion than as an end in and of itself.

"Brave Story: New Traveler"
Xseed, for the PSP, rated E10+, $39.99.

It's kind of shocking how mired in cliche this dull role-playing game is. Every type of character, spell and game mechanic you've ever seen before crops up here, only less well done. The net result is a lifeless, depressing game.

"Surf's Up"
Ubisoft, for the Wii, rated E10+, $49.99.

Ubisoft had the right idea in developing the video game tie-in for the here-and-gone animated film about the surfing penguin and his friends. Rather than try to create a boring platform game that haphazardly follows the plot of the movie, they instead opted to create a kid-friendly version of the "Tony Hawk" games, with lead character Cody and his friends riding never-ending waves, performing a variety of midair tricks in a race for the finish line.

It's a decent enough title for the kids, though the controls make it difficult to aim for the proper rail to grind on or underpass to sail through. Considering that passing to the next level can often require accomplishing such things, it can lead to a bit of frustration. Rent before you buy.

"Honeycomb Beat"
Konami, for the DS, rated E for Everyone, $19.99.

This simple, fun puzzle game has you flipping hexagon-shaped tiles over in "Othello"-like fashion in an attempt to have them all be the same color. There are two modes here. One has you solving prearranged puzzles. The second has you desperately trying to clear lines (a la "Tetris") before the geometric shapes fill up the screen. Though "Beat" doesn't reach the sublime addictiveness of puzzlers like "Lumines," it's clever and simple enough to be worthy of your attention.

Midway, for the DS, rated E for Everyone, $29.99.

Now that Nintendo's Wii and DS consoles have made casual games hip, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Midway, for example, recently put together this collection of 23 minigames, divided into such genres as "puzzle," "strategy" and "cards." Classic titles such as solitaire and checkers (albeit with frogs instead of game pieces) make an appearance here, but there are plenty of new games as well, or tweaked variations of beloved franchises like "Crystal Balls," which is only a heartbeat away from Tetris.

There are a few clunkers. I couldn't figure out the rules to "Artifact," for example. But there are enough entertaining, and in the case of "3 Peak Deluxe" completely addictive, games to entertain fans.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

VG Review: NiGHTS

Sega, for the Wii, rated E for Everyone (mild fantasy violence), $49.99.

Nostalgia can be a deadly trap, though we're all susceptible to it.

I, for example, have fond memories of "NiGHTS: Into Dreams," a game that came out for the Sega Saturn console way back in 1997 and has since developed a strong cult following.

So I was pretty excited when Sega released a sequel, "NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams" for the Wii. At long last, I'd get the chance to fly around as a noseless jester in a candy-colored dream world again. And using wireless motion control yet.

It only took a few minutes into the game for me to realize that, as Thomas Wolfe once wrote, you can't go home again.

In the game you play as one of two intensely bland children, Helen and Will, who "dualize" with the aforementioned flying jester NiGHTS to stop an evil villain from ruining the dream world, called Nightopia.

To that end you fly around an ornate dreamscape, zooming through rings, collecting items and avoiding enemies and obstacles along an invisible track.

That was the essence of the original NiGHTS that I loved, but not so much here. Part of the problem involves the Wii-mote controller. Move too far in any direction and you loose control of NiGHTS, making the game much more frustrating than it should be. Plugging in a standard controller is a better option.

What really sinks the game, however, is its maddening save system. Rather than save your game as you complete each stage, the game forces you to start an entire level all over again, regardless of whether you are at the final boss battle or just finished the first flight around.

Problems continue with the developers' annoying need to pad out the game with fetch quests and minigames. The horrible platforming sequences involving Will and Helen bring the game to a screeching halt and will have queasy players rushing for the bathroom.

It was at that point that I decided to put "NiGHTS" down. Hard-core gamers can feel free to chide me for not completing the game, but honestly, I'd rather not have my memories or the original game completely ruined.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Graphic Lit: Superheroes

This week's column is a pretty good example of why I started this blog, in that I had to cut over half the content out in order to fit it on our ever-shrinking newspaper page. Our editorial space keeps being cut drastically. It's not anyone's fault, I'm just stuck in a dying business I guess. Either that or I write too damn long.

Anyway, here's the column as originally intended.

It’s tough to be a superhero comic these days.

As the core fan base grows older and more demanding for “serious” (i.e. excessively violent) stories, it can be difficult to attract new readers.

You see, the older the character or universe gets, the more complicated and esoteric its history becomes. Trying to placate fans who’ve spent time and effort investing in a hero’s lineage while also attempting to bring in new fans can put one in considerable hot water.

Take the recent debacle involving Spider-Man for example. Longing for the days when Peter Parker was a swinging (pardon the pun) single, the powers that be at Marvel decided to undo his marriage with Mary Jane — not through divorce or trial separation but by having him make a deal with the devil, erasing his marriage from existence in order to save his beloved Aunt May.

Reaction was swift and derisive, if not downright hostile. Many longtime fans threatened to stop reading Spidey’s adventures while newcomers may have found the premise too laughable to invest their cash.

Still, high-quality cape and cowl books do exist, if you know where to find them. Here are four titles currently being published by the big two — Marvel and DC — that you can walk right into your local comic shop, pick up and enjoy without having to have a master’s degree in Superherology:

“The Immortal Iron Fist”
by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Brubaker, Fraction and Aja do the rather impressive feat of taking an up-till-now negligible C-list character — martial arts expert Daniel Rand — and suddenly making him relevant and interesting by positioning him as the latest in a long line of “Iron Fists.” The added back story gives the book some gravitas and weight while still managing to be a fun, gritty kung-fu homage. (Note: The first six issues have been collected into a $14.99 trade, “The Last Iron Fist Story.”)

“Omega the Unknown”
by Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Originally created by Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney in the 1970s, Omega was an idiosyncratic comic about an overly intelligent teenage orphan and his mute, enigmatic superhero guardian that lasted just long enough (10 issues) to develop a cult following.

Acclaimed novelist Lethem (“Fortress of Solitude”) and indie artist Dalrymple’s 10-issue revamp tries to pay homage to the original’s offbeat tone while creating its own quiet, surreal feel. It takes a few issues to build up steam, but by the third you can sense it simultaneously creating an aura of mystery and dread that makes you eager to pick up the next issue.

“Booster Gold”
by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Like “Iron Fist,” “Booster Gold” also focuses on a third-rate hero, in this case an attention-seeking showboater from the future. The catch here is that Booster finds himself becoming the savior of the DC universe by having to travel through time and fix anomalies so that, say, Superman doesn’t end up as Lex Luthor’s little brother.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the comic is that while it’s clearly focused on DC minutiae, it doesn’t become mired in it. It’s more than happy to explain itself to the unfamiliar reader who doesn’t know or care who Rip Hunter or Jonah Hex are. It sets up its rules, explains them concisely and then goes about its business, namely creating a fun adventure.

It’s also rather genuinely funny, which is not something you can say about a lot of superhero books these days.

“The Brave and the Bold”
by Mark Waid and George Perez, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Superhero fans love a good team-up, and “Brave and the Bold” attempts to scratch that itch in spades. In the first story arc (now collected into a hardcover $25 book, “The Lords of Luck”) Batman, Supergirl, Green Lantern and many others travel back and forth through time to retrieve an item of dire importance. The plot’s just an excuse to have these colorful characters bump up against each other, and it’s fun to see, for example, the uber-professional Batman rub shoulders with the nervous neophyte Blue Beetle.

It sounds like the sort of thing only hard-core DC nerds would appreciate, but Waid and Perez bring a light touch to the project — there were characters here I wasn’t aware of or familiar with, but I didn’t feel left out once. It’s a fun thrill ride of a book. 
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Friday, January 25, 2008

VG Review: Zack and Wiki

Capcom, for the Wii, rated E for Everyone (cartoon violence), $39.99.

There have been a number of enjoyable games for the Wii recently, but very few that have taken advantage of the system's unique capabilities

"Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure" on the other hand, does a splendid job of integrating the console's motion controls, making it an integral part of the gameplay and not just a gimmick. What's more, it manages to revive an old genre that I had long given up for lost: the classic point and click adventure game (i.e. "Myst," "Syberia.")

The story involves a pint-sized pirate and his pet monkey (at least I think it's a monkey) as they attempt to acquire different pieces of a long-lost treasure that just happens also to be the skeleton of a pirate king.

Each level requires you to figure out a way to access a seemingly inaccessible treasure chest. Getting from A to B usually involves using tools like saws, bells, blocks and fishing rods.

To aid in your quest, certain creatures can be turned into helpful objects. A frog, for example, can become a bomb with the ring of a bell.

If half the fun is sussing out what you're required to do, the other half is using the Wii controller in inventive ways, as if it were a hammer, saw, lever or key.

For the most part, the puzzles are challenging without seeming impossible, though there are several that will have you flinging your controller across the room in frustration.

My only -- and big -- problem with the game is the save system. Make a wrong move and you'll have to start all the way back from the beginning unless you've spent serious cash on a "Platinum Ticket." Considering some levels take a half hour or more to finish, that's a serious annoyance.

There's no denying however, that "Zack and Wiki" is one of the most original and fun titles to come out for the Wii in all of 2007. Those who miss the PC puzzle games of yesteryear would do well to check it out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Satchel Paige

Beware the blurb that graces the back cover of “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow” that promises to follow “Paige from his earliest days on the mound through the pinnacle of his career.”

This is no straightforward biography but rather a glimpse of the man as seen by a contemporary, a Negro League player who’s forced to retire from baseball too soon. Authors James Sturm and Rich Tommaso are obviously more interested in what Satchel Paige’s existence meant to black America during his lifetime than in the man himself.

Paige himself appears only twice in the story, once when the narrator is facing off against him in a ball game and many years later when, having been forced to become a sharecropper, the narrator attends an exhibition game with Paige squaring off against the local white team.

That’s a shame to an extent, as Paige, at least as presented in this book, comes across as a fascinating figure. He was a showboater and clown who knew how to play an audience but nevertheless possessed a stunning athleticism that stayed with him well into middle age.

Still, the ultimate goal here is to entice and provide context, especially for younger readers, and in that regard, this remains an impressively crafted, compelling story that shows just how inspirational a figure like Paige could be to those trapped in the segregation-era South.

Sturm is no stranger to historical fiction or baseball, as readers of “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” (in Drawn and Quarterly’s excellent collection “James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems) are well aware.

Though Tommaso provides the bulk of the art chores, he’s obviously working off of Sturm’s layouts as the structure follows “Golem” closely, both in terms of narrative structure and voice and in layout and design (dig those panels devoid of backgrounds).

This isn’t Sturm’s best work (to read that, you should track down “America”), but it’s a well-done short story that will no doubt entice readers to learn more about Paige and his life. It worked for me.

Other nonfiction comics 

“J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography”

by Rick Geary, Hill and Wang, $16.95.

With his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series, Geary has proved himself phenomenally adept at using comics to relate historical events, so it’s a bit perplexing how dry and rote this biography of the FBI chief is.

Geary sticks closely to the facts of Hoover’s life, only vaguely alluding to allegations of what the man’s private life might have been. As an introduction to the man and his significance, it serves its purpose, but I kept wishing he would turn up the heat a little bit. Maybe that’s the point though: Hoover left little of himself behind for others to stew over.

“Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History”
by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm and Paul Buhle, Hill and Wang, $22.

When he’s not recounting his own life, Harvey Pekar’s nonfiction work can be spotty, to say the least. His recounting of various jazz musicians and writers is insightful, but when he starts talking politics, watch out.

Thus it will not surprise you when I say this episodic recounting of one of the seminal student organizations of the 1960s is a dull, confusing slog. Lots of names are thrown out, events and groups are frequently cited and various characters tell their stories, but no context is ever provided, making it hard for the reader to care.

You get the feeling we should be aware (and grateful) of the SDS simply because it existed. There’s a smug baby-boomer sense of self-satisfaction that really sinks what should have been a fascinating book.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Friday, January 18, 2008

VG Review: Assassin's Creed

Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, rated M for Mature (blood, strong language, violence), $59.99 (PS3 and 360) and $49.99 (PC).

It's obvious that the developers of "Assassin's Creed" spent a lot of time and money creating the expansive, impressively detailed cities the game is set in.

I say this because you are forced to spend an awful lot of time roaming the various streets and rooftops on menial tasks, often to the detriment of the game. Apparently the makers were fearful that all their effort would go ignored and unappreciated.

In "Creed," you play Altair, an assassin skulking about the Middle East during the Third Crusade.

Well, actually, that's not quite right. According to the game, you're really a bartender from the near future who's been kidnapped by a shadowy organization, strapped to a table and forced to relive the memories of your medieval ancestor.

Still with me?

It sounds confusing, but the game actually does a good job of setting up the sci-fi concept. The idea also helps explain some of the video game's inconsistencies, such as the fact that Altair speaks with an American accent or that Damascus, Jerusalem and other cities all seem within a few hours' horseback ride of one another.

After losing face for being too much of a showoff, Altair must earn back his good name within the assassin community by eliminating nine allegedly evil people for his master.

It's at this point that the game starts to show problems. Each mission begins with you climbing down an immense mountainside, hopping on a horse and riding for an interminable amount of time to your city of choice.

Once there, you have to perform tasks such as rescuing citizens, beating information out of people, pickpocketing and eavesdropping.

These mini-missions are all right initially, but become repetitive and dull quickly. The lack of variety, combined with the length of getting from A to B, is frustrating, especially considering the potential for interaction and exploration each city offers.

On the other hand, the assassination missions are fun. I enjoyed clambering around the rooftops, offing the occasional nosy guard and plotting my victim's demise.

Speaking of guards, I should mention how your movements affect the other "people" in the game. Slap the incredibly annoying beggar woman and hosts of soldiers will come down heavy on you, swords drawn.

This can get rather ridiculous, however, as things like riding your horse at a reasonable trot will alert every Templar Knight from here to Timbuktu, but holding down the A button and going just a wee bit slower will somehow render you undetectable.

Despite all these negative comments, I liked enough of "Assassin's Creed" to recommend it. It's well-detailed, filled with historical accuracies and makes enough of a stab at originality to be noteworthy. Despite its repetitive nature and occasional dull spots, it's more fun than your average cookie-cutter game that most companies spew these days.

Copyright The Patriot-News


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Graphic Lit: Clearing off my desk

I always like to start the year off with a clean slate.

In this case, that means attempting to clear the pile of review books off my shelf to make room for the next round. Thus, here's another, even faster "lightning round of reviews" of some books that hit stores last year:

"Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm" by Percy Carey and Ronald Wimberly (Vertigo, $19.99) -- The indie rapper MF Grimm tells his life story, including the shooting that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Considering Carey's rough and tumble life, it's a pretty cursory run through his biography, and neither Carey nor artist Wimberly seem particularly curious as to how or why particular events shaped him -- he comments frequently on his explosive temper, but never seems to question its origins. The result is a strangely anemic autobiography.

"The Ride Home" by Joey Weisner (AdHouse Books, $9.95) -- A rather twee tale about a gnome who lives in a car, gets lost and has some mundane adventures before finding a new abode. Even if you're in the market for unbearable cuteness, this book is a bit too clumsily handled to be worth your time.

"Just When You Thought Things Couldn't Get Worse: The Cartoons and Comic Strips of Edward Sorel" (Fantagraphics Books, $18.95) -- Sorel has always been one of the best editorial and satirical cartoonists working in major media (by which I mean The New Yorker, The Village Voice, etc.). He also boasts an idiosyncratic, sketchy style that's instantly recognizable and utterly compelling. This handy collection compiles some of his best work of the past 30 years.

"The Aviary" by Jamie Tanner (AdHouse Books, $12.95) -- Tanner tells darkly comic, surreal stories about alienation, longing, death, creepy blinking birdmen and dismemberment. This collection of interconnecting short stories, drawn in a tightly controlled, almost cold style, will hopefully garner him a wider audience. He's an artist deserving of more attention.

"Pumpkin Scissors Vol. 1" by Ryotaro Iwanaga (Del Rey, $10.95) -- Despite the ridiculous title, this is actually a rather entertaining manga about a military force determined to keep the peace after a lengthy and costly war. "Scissors" is thoughtful enough to consider the various complications a tenuous truce would entail, yet lighthearted enough to include the requisite bit of high action or low comedy. It's a good mix.

"Betsy and Me" by Jack Cole (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) -- Plastic Man creator and Playboy cartoonist Cole realized his dream of becoming a syndicated newspaper comic strip with the release of "Betsy and Me" in 1958. Then, two and a half months later he committed suicide.

That weighs what would otherwise be regarded as a delightful, lighthearted family strip with a good deal of unnecessary sorrow. If you can submerge those inclinations, however, you'll discover an utterly charming riff on late '50s family life that never got the chance it deserved.

"The Best American Comics 2007" edited by Chris Ware (Houghton Mifflin, $22) -- Actually, most of this work is from 2006, but it's hard to quibble with the bulk of material sampled in this "best of" anthology. It reflects Ware's interests in autobiography and formalism, so those who don't share said interests will find their attention waning. Still, it's a pretty good sample of what some of the best in the field are doing right now.

"Thunderhead Underground Falls" by Joel Orff, Alternative Comics, $14.95. -- Orff's work has left me cold until now, but I found this impressionistic story about a young man remembering his last night of freedom with his friend/romantic partner before heading off to join the military rather compelling. Orff's work has always been more about fleeting moments and memories than a traditional narrative, and his art can come off as crude at times, but it's hard not to find this book's poetry.

"Essex County Vol. 1: Tales From the Farm" and "Essex County Vol. 2: Ghost Stories" by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, $9.95 and $14.95). -- Struggling family relationships set against the cold Canadian landscape is the central thrust of this ongoing series of interrelated graphic novels. Of the two, the second volume, about a pair of bickering, hockey-playing brothers, is the better.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Brian Wood

Most of writer Brian Wood’s comics tend to take place either in the present day (“Local”) or in the near future (“DMZ”), so it’s a little surprising to see his latest work take place in the distant past.

The Viking past, to be specific, since his new monthly series, “Northlanders,” trades urban landscapes for longboats and swords as Wood and artist Davide Gianfelice introduce us to Sven, a twentysomething warrior who’s come home from Constantinople to reclaim his inheritance and overthrow his evil and corrupt uncle.

I chatted with Wood over e-mail about his new series. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Why Vikings? What attracted you to the subject matter?

A: The book's all about societal change, about the old versus the new. The first millennium, where this first story takes place, is the tipping point for Europe, where the Dark Ages gave way to rapid globalization, such as it was. When Christianity really began to take off, replacing the old pagan religions. Where new ship technology opened up trade and exploration and colonization. New societies were formed, like the Normans, and the east literally collided with the west. I can't think of anything more ripe for a writer to work with.

All that coupled with a childhood fascination for Vikings and for that part of the world (Scotland, Iceland, etc) is what made me go outside my comfort zone and pitch this book.

Q: In the first issue Sven seems to be following a classic hero's journey. To what extent will you be playing with mythological elements of Viking culture?

A: No mythology in this book. Well, brief references to it here and there, but I'm treating it as I feel is the realistic way, like a superstition, not an all-encompassing thing. It's not like Thor where our hero wanders the land having a flowery conversation with the gods. Life was hard back then and people had to be more concerned with where their next meal was coming from than a whimsical folk religion. At least that's how I'm approaching it in "Northlanders."

Q: In the course of your research did you discover anything that either changed your impression of viking culture?

A: Oh, yeah, dozens of things. I did an excess of research and as a result have really more ideas than I could ever use. All of it just broadened my appreciation for this culture, and one thing that always comes back to mind is about the violent conquest and colonization they did. It wasn't about a ideology or religion or bigotry. They did what they did out of a simple and powerful need for land and food, just to survive. And once they had that land, they happily assimilated themselves into the native culture in order to keep the land peacefully. There's a certain pragmatism to that I can respect, especially considering what followed the Viking Age — the Crusades.

Q: I understand you plan on introducing different characters and storylines as the series continues. What made you decide to take this interesting tack with the comic and how did you decide upon which story would be first?

A: Sven really epitomizes the whole point of the series, which is to show this part of the world in flux, just as it was in real life, with Vikings as the engine of change. Europe was modernizing pretty rapidly, in large part because of the Norse and their technologies opening up new lands, new trade routes, new colonies.

Sven is the perfect example of a globalized sort of man, such as they were in 980 AD, who's rejected the old and is fully embracing this new world, new way of thinking, rejecting the old folky religions. His homeland, which is thrust back upon him, is the classic small town backwater, a relic of the dark ages. For that reason I wanted his story to introduce the series.

I've been writing self-contained fiction like this since 2003, when I created "Demo," which was a series of completely disconnected stories. There were no common story threads or characters. It was a fantastic experiment that really paid off, so I did it again in 2005 with "Local," which was nearly the same format but with a single recurring character.

"Northlanders" is an enlarged version of the "Demo" format, but instead of one-issue stories, they are eight-issue stories, completely self-contained from each other. I found I really like writing this way, that it keeps the book fresh and interesting, and that I can make it work.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Joe Sacco

In 1991, cartoonist Joe Sacco took a trip to Israel and the occupied territories.

"I had begun to understand something of the oppression of the Palestinians," he recently wrote. "I was appalled, and I was overwhelmed with an almost physical need to act."

He then turned his travelogue into a nine-issue comic book series, "Palestine."

Though it sold poorly at the time, it's since gone on to become one of Sacco's most popular works, showing readers a new way to think about the medium's potential for exploring nonfiction material.

Sacco, meanwhile, has gone on to make a name for himself as a comics journalist, repeatedly traveling to areas such as Bosnia, the Middle East and Iraq to report on the human dramas found in these war-torn areas.

Now, the book that started it all, "Palestine," has been lovingly repackaged in a hardbound "Special Anniversary Edition."

The new collection comes complete with extended notes by Sacco, photos from his initial trip, early sketches, rejected pages and more, making it the graphic novel equivalent of a "Criteron Collection" release.

I recently talked to Sacco about "Palestine" and its influence. Here's what he had to say:

Q: How does it feel to be revisiting "Palestine" after all this time?

A: Well, you know, once you finish a book you kind of want to move away from it, not so much because you disown it, but because it seemed like a lot of work and you just creatively were in its grip for so long that it can be difficult to go back to it.

On the other hand, it was interesting to look at because so much of the way I work, the way I draw especially, has changed. It’s interesting to go back and see the energy I had in those days and in some ways the freedom I felt to explore what you could do with the idiom.

And of course now, inevitably, just because you get more experienced, you hone your craft, you know what you’re doing more, you’re more self-conscious, you kind of miss that abandon. I think there’s a certain abandon in the way I drew Palestine.

Q: Like an aloofness?

A: Yeah, that’s one way of defining it.

Q: I know you were talking about this in the introduction, but if you could just go over again why you decided to visit Israel and the occupied territories and turn your travels into a comic.

A: Well there were two main reasons. If I had to disentangle them -- and often these things are quite entangled for purposes of this conversation -- the two main reasons would be I was pretty much appalled by what was going on in the Palestinian occupied territories and I felt compelled to go and see for myself. In some ways that’s part of and is in tandem with this feeling that I’d been fed a lot of bullshit about what was going on in the region by the American media. Having studied journalism, I was plainly upset by the fact that I’d studied journalism, I thought I understood what objective journalism was all about, and then I began to realize that so-called objective journalism hadn’t shown me a damn thing. In fact, it had, as far as I'm concerned, misinformed me about what was going on. Or didn’t inform me, that’s probably the lightest way of putting it.

And so, having studied journalism I felt somehow betrayed by other journalists or other media outlets, because it’s not just the fault of journalists. That was another reason I was propelled to go. It’s the thing itself and the way the thing had been presented.
Q: In what way did your visit affect your initial perceptions?

A: Well, in that particular trip, and it doesn’t always happen, but in that trip my initial perceptions, my perceptions from afar, were re-enforced. What I thought I’d see, I saw. But of course, you’re seeing it in a very clear way and you’re seeing things you didn’t know you’d see necessarily, other parts of the puzzle, but ultimately what it led down to was what it was about before and when I got there was the brutality of the occupation.

Q: Now did you initially go with the idea of making it into a comic or was it more along the lines of “I just want to go and see for myself.”

A: It’s both. I wanted to go see for myself. I was compelled to do that. But I also didn’t like the idea of just going and being sort of a tourist in the occupied territories soaking up stuff with no real reason except to edify myself. That might be fine, but I thought I’ve already started this career — I wasn’t in high gear with the career, but I was already a cartoonist doing comic books -- and I thought well, I might as well make my trip useful. I thought when I went there I would pretty much thought of making it a travelouge of my experiences there. It would be autobiographical.

I knew that studying journalism I would want to talk to Palestinians there. I knew that would work its way into the book. It wasn’t going to be about me bumbling about. It was going to be other people's stories. I had a loose idea of what I was going to do, but when I went there I had no understanding ... I wasn’t 100 percent sure of what I was doing or whether I would be able to produce a book. Of course you go there without any experience and the fear is you’re not going to be up to the task of doing what you think you should be doing. That was a question to me.

Q: Was there, either during the trip or after when you started working on the comic, an aha moment for you where you thought "Hey I’m on the verge of something here. I could make a career out of this?"

A: No, strangely it was the opposite. There’s the creative part of you and fortunately, I let the creative part of me just go where it was going to go. You through away the bridle and let the horse run. But there was that other part of me that worries about eating and paying rent that was thinking “This is commercial suicide. I should just keep doing comics about rock and roll because I know about that stuff.” I was living in Berlin at the time and a lot of interesting things were happening there. Why not do that, that makes more sense from a commercial standpoint.

It was interesting to me, it wasn’t just like the philistine in me thinking. I wasn’t sure this was going to fly at all. There was no great "a-ha" moment becuase the comic was serialized and there were nine issues and each issue, if I remember right, was selling less than the one before it. So there was no a-ha, it was more like “OK, I’ve committed myself to doing this, it’s going to take a number of years to do, I’m going to finish it and that’s all there is to it. I’m just going to keep my eye on the ball." Because creatively I was enjoying it and I was sort of reliving the experience which was a good thing for me personally but I didn’t really think it was leading me anywhere commercially.

The "a-ha" moment would come when you feel others are responding to it. Critically it seemed to do really well, I had good comments from people who knew the region and all that, but if you don’t see readers reading it in the United States of America ultimately something has to sell for it to fly. If you want to make a living at it. If I was going to be an outsider artist all my life, which is fine, but that’s not who I am, I’d like to live just like anyone else would like to live.

Q: It’s funny you say that because it is your most well-known book and it did turn into a career for you so it’s interesting that you were so unsure that people would respond considering what it’s led to for you.

A: You know, what made "Palestine," I guess I’d have to call it a modest success and one that’s fine for me, and it’s done well, is the book on Bosnia. When I did the "Gorazde" book, I was at a low ebb for different reasons but I was almost about to give up cartooning completely. That book did well. It got reviewed in substantial mainstream markets. That book got a lot of attention. It was actually after that book was released that "Palestine" was collected into a single volume. That’s when "Palestine" began to do well, when it got into bookstores too. So actually it’s almost the success of the Bosnia stuff that led to the door opening for "Palestine," which was at that point being done for years.

And it’s true, I guess I’m more well known for "Palestine" on a certain level, but I’d say that has to do with the topic. That’s the reason.

Q: Recently Tom Spurgeon said something along the lines of publishers didn’t know what to do with your work or how to promote it. Do you feel that’s changed significantly? That the market has changed enough to support you doing these kinds of comics?

A: The market has changed immeasurably since I started doing "Palestine." Then I had no perception, no concept of myself in comics. I quite naively thought that based on what I’d done with "Palestine" I could get someone to sponsor my trip to Bosnia. That was laughable because even though people might like what I did with the "Palestine" comic, at that point it hadn’t been collected into a book and there was no proof that it had sold. I basically got a lot of nos and had to self-finance the trip to Bosnia too.

So that was two major trips I had to self-finance and that’s why I was at the end of my rope. But because the "Gorzade" book did well and then the "Palestine" book did well, and I started getting a lot more attention from people like yourself. Suddenly doors started to open. Editors were more interested and to make a long story short I’m at a point now where if I really wanted to travel somewhere and do a story I would just have to call my agent and mention it and see if she thinks anyone will buy it.

Editors are much more receptive. Often they seek me out. I think partly that has to do with the fact that comics it seems in the last few years, and it’s not just because of my work, comics have just achieved a critical mass. Of course there were great comics before, but for some reason it just happened now.

Also, editors are younger. and that makes a difference. when you’re dealing with someone who’s in his 60s, unless he’s up to date or willing to try something new, they would just sort of look at you and think “Nah, I don’t think so.” It’s really changed a lot.

Q: What do you feel is the general reaction towards "Palestine?" How do you feel it is regarded both in the ensuing years and initially? And also, what are some of the more interesting reactions you’ve gotten from people?

A: I think generally "Palestine" has been pretty well-regarded. I think clearly it’s not a unobjective piece of work, but that’s clear, I’m not trying to pretend otherwise. But I do think, as I said in the intro, I think it’s an honest piece of work.

So to me the best response, the ones I enjoy the most are from people who’ve spent time in the region and say my experiences really resonate with them because they remind them of their own. There have been occasional attacks on it. but the great thing about having done it the way I did it, despite the fact that it was disheartening not to have any attention, on the other hand, it was under the radar, which allowed me to do it without worrying about critical response. I was maybe less steeled for that than I am now.

Q: Are you more concerned about a critical response now?

A: No, just as much as anyone. I’m older now, a bit more mature, I could probably handle it better.

Q: I didn’t mean to the extent that you would change something in the book but more that you were aware of it moreso than before.

A: I think I’m just more confident in my work now than I was during "Palestine."

Q: I wanted to ask you how the work evolved as you wrote it, because the tone changes a lot. I think that’s one of the good things about the book, but it starts out very self-effacing and then takes a much darker tone as you get into Gaza.

A: Well, the thing about the West Bank episodes is that they are self-contained chapters. When I got to Gaza I actually fell in with two or three people that end up being characters in the book. and I think that’s where the emphasis shifts. And I think I was sort of overwhelmed and stupified by what I saw in Gaza that Gaza itself becomes a character in the book and I have to recede. It might have almost been a subconscious decision with me but clearly my self-effacement is very secondary to the grimness of the situation. I’m not sure it was something I thought out. I knew the Gaza chapters would come at the end of my book because that was the chronology of my trip. Not that the book was entirely chronological, but that’s how it turned out. And I think it serves the book, sort of bumbling, funny to purely grim.

Q: You also make a lot of different stylistic choices as the book goes on, for example in “Moderate Pressure Part 2” you slowly divide into smaller and smaller panels or you have pages with lots of text. You mix it up a lot and I was wondering how conscious that was and in a general sense how you arrived at those sorts of choices.

A: Well some of those choices were just the maturing of an artist. One of the interesting things about the "Palestine" book is I think I matured as an artist in that period. It’s funny because in some ways it’s not a consistent book as far as the drawings go. Initially if you look at the first few pages, they’re very cartoony. If you look at the last few pages, they’re still cartoony but they’re much more representational. I purposely tried to tone down the cartooniness because it didn’t seem appropriate to the kind of journalistic story I was telling. It took effort, because I was never trained to draw. That’s something I’ve had to push myself toward.

That was a very conscious decision. Another conscious decision was to lose the wild panels and angles. Now some of those are in the later part of the book, but especially in the beginning, I’m much freer and looser with how I'm showing things. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of that had to do with the fact that I wanted to keep myself interested in the drawing. One of the hardest things to do is to draw the same thing over and over again at a certain angle, even if it’s necessary to tell your story. I’ve learned to do that. It doesn’t necessarily make for a splashy looking page, but it keeps the story going. I’ve learned maybe not to arrest the reader at the wrong time with a fancy drawing.

One thing I do like about the book and that I’ve continued to use is the use of very large two page spreads or long big panels detailing a lot of things going on. That give a very broad perspective of what a place looks like. A lot of that came from children’s books I read when I was a kid, these history book that would have castles of the middle ages with all these people walking around.

Now I’d say my art, I think I get better. I just draw better. I’m definitely at a plateau now where I know when to rein in certain tendencies I have. It doesn’t make for as spectacular a book as "Palestine," but it makes for one that reads a bit more smoothly.

Q: Are you still in touch with any of the people you met during your initial travel?

A: No, not during my initial travel. I sent books to five or seven people and never received a reply. But you know you have to send those books through Israel so I don’t ...
Q: They may never have gotten them.

A: I don’t know, I can’t say. When I was there recently I tried to look some people up but I just couldn’t find them.

Q: I was curious whatever happened to Sameh.

A: I was curious too. When I was lost in Jabalia Camp I really tried to find him. Maybe on some other trip.

Q: You were back again recently?

A: I’ve been back about five times since the book came out. Most recently I’m working on a book about Gaza based on three trips I took there. That was 2003 was the last trip I took and a lot’s happened since then.

Q: What can comics do for journalism that photos or pure prose can’t? What are the benefits of doing a journalistic story in comics?

A: There’s a number of them. I think comics are a very subversive sort of medium. I think people are attracted by images, they’re attracted by the pictures. They also think “Oh, it’s comics, it’s going to be easy.” A reader’s going to say "I’ve never read a book about this in my life, but it looks like I can get into this." They get sucked into it and then the story becomes the main thing and they’re getting a lot of information. I think that easily rivals a documentary series.

I think a comic because of repeated images also can create an atmosphere of a place. It’s repeated images so there are certain things going on in the background that you don’t have to mention over and over again. If you’re writing about how much graffiti was on the wall in prose, you write it once, you don’t write it every paragraph. Whereas in comics, it can be in the background every panel so it sort of sinks into the reader’s consciousness.

The other thing I think you can do with comics is take people back and forward through time. You can be in the present, you can switch to the past, and because of the way you draw, it seems seamless, with no actors acting out the way they do sometimes with documentaries that makes you kind of wince.

Q: I definitely agree with you about place setting, because one of the things I got out of "Gorazde" was a sense of what that place was like.

A: Thank you. That was very important to me, because I remember reading John Byrne’s article, he’s a New York Times correspondent, from Gorazde when he actually walked across those fountains and spent a week there in 1993. And they were very compelling and very evocative but on the other hand I had no clue what the place looked like. When I go there I had nothing that I could say this is what the place looks like. When I got there there were tall apartment buildings and wow this is a town. From reading the articles I had no clue whether it was a village with little houses or what. So to me, to make something real, you can do it with drawings.

Q: What lessons did you take away from "Palestine" as an artist?

A: Many things. A very specific thing is I wouldn’t do that long text piece and just had illustrations like you mentioned. However, the main thing I learned is that I could do this. That at least to my satisfaction I was able to accomplish something. That gave me the confidence to go to Bosnia. That’s really the main thing. The other thing is you learn over the course of three years, drawing day in, day out, your drawings get better. That’s the hope.
Q: As I’m talking to you the big news this week has been about the meeting in Annapolis, so what do you make of the current Mideast situation? Is it better or worse than the situation you portray in Palestine.

A: I think it’s much worse. Since I was there for that first trip there was the second infantada with great amounts of violence. The whole thing with Annapolis, I’m not the first person to say this but at first they made it sound like something substantial was going to come from it, and now they just met to say they’ll be meeting later. It seems ridiculous. Everyone’s putting themselves on the line for nothing. I don’t see anything coming from this. I’m pessimistic.

Q: If you could look into your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of Israel and Palestine?

A: If things continue the way they’re going, if they’re not arrested, if my crystal ball could go 20-30 years down the road, I don’t see a very good outcome for this for either the Israelis or the Palestinians. I think one or the other is going to be seriously hurt when it comes down to it. I fear for the Israelis actually and I fear for the Palestinians. the worst case scenarios are that Israelis lose what they have or Palestinians are completely evicted from the land. Either of those events are possible. They better figure it out sooner rather than later is what I’m saying. The longer it goes on, the more entrenched the problem’s going to become. It’s already one of the longest running problems in the history of the world.

Q: Do you see anything that gives you hope?

A: The only thing that gives me cause for hope is that individuals on both sides and probably the majority, really want to settle the problem. Most people are pretty sensible and just want to have an ordinary life and want to move on. Things like dignity and justice are very important, no doubt about it, but there’s a need to live an average life that people have and the hope is that there will be enough pressure from below to make the leaders figure it out. It seems like the problem is some of the things that have happened were made specifically to make the problem intractable. There’s no other explanation as far as I’m concerned for the settlements. Putting 500,000 people and I’m including Jerusalem, which is often excluded from conversations like this, but putting people in an occupied territory is not an easy thing to undo. And that was the thinking behind it, to make it impossible to go back. They’ve done a good job of that. It’s unfortunate. Unless that is significantly reversed, I don’t know what else to say about it. You’re really leading to endless conflict.
Q: Part of the reason I ask that question is in Palestine, and I hesitate to use the word fatalistic, but there is a sense of an overwhelming problem that Americans are a) not aware of and b) so divisive that — there’s very much a sense of being overwhelmed by the time you reach the end of the book. I mean that as a compliment (laughter).

A: That’s interesting. I was only putting down what I felt and what I saw. I think it’s unfortunate that — it seems that America would be a friend to Israel by saying now is the time to deal with the situation. Under every American administration, but particularly under this one, they’ve allowed Israel to sort of just ...

Q: ... do whatever they want?

A: Yeah, that’s basically it. I don’t think that’s good for Israel. Actually there are saner voices in Israel that keep saying we can’t have the Americans allowing us to continue this.

Q: Again, there’s that sequence at the end of Gaza strip, where you leave this wrenching sequence, and the guy in the car has yet another story. So again, there’s the sense of this enormous problem. And at the end you ask what happens, what comes next?

A: Well, that was it. You see some kid being humiliated like that, and you put yourself in that person’s shoes and you think this could turn out a lot of ways that might not be for the best. And then you wonder why people do what they do? In some cases you see a direct link to what they’ve lived and what they’ve seen and what they do. And that was an open-ended question that I wanted to leave because that’s how I felt. How long are you going to keep a lid on this? You can't do this to people continually. One generation gets battered down and then rises and then the next generation gets battered down and rises but at some point people break. They either break or they fight. It’s one or the other.
Q: What do you think the influence of "Palestine" has been, especially within comic circles. It seemed to me when the book came out and also "Gorazde" years later, it won a lot of critical acclaim, but when I was getting ready to interview you I was trying to think of other cartoonists that were trying journalism, but I couldn’t think of any. What influence do you think you’ve had?

A: That’s a question for my many future biographers. I’m not sure what influence I’ve had. I’ve been contacted by cartoonists who’ve said they’d like to do something like this. I think other people have done this sort of thing. There are some French cartoonists who have. Even Art Spiegelman was once an editor at Details magazine and pretty much his approach was to send people out on journalistic assignments.

Some of those were lighter than others, but the idea was still to send someone out to report. I don’t know if that’s related to me and I don’t think an artist should think too much about that sort of thing. I’ve always thought of myself as a little anomalous. I see other cartoonists that are much more influential stylistically on others. I don’t see much of me in most of my peers. But I do know that there are some younger cartoonists who talk about wanting to do something like this. They say they’re inspired by me. And I’m glad for that, but any influence I’ve had I don’t see it yet.

I don’t see myself as the granddaddy of anything. And I don’t want to consider myself that. You start to ossify when you think of yourself as that (laughs). I think the door is open to this sort of thing.

Q: Would you like to see more people try their hand at this sort of thing?

A: Yeah, comics are so well suited for this sort of thing. There’s a Canadian cartoonists working on a book about mining. Canadian mining comics or something.

Q: What are you proudest of about "Palestine?"

A: The sequence in Gaza, and I’m not sure I can ever duplicate it or do as good a job, there’s sequence in Gaza where I’m with Sameh and we’re just walking through the camp. I feel like I created a mood and atmosphere there that I just allowed myself to do. I got my own experience down properly. That’s probably what I’m proudest of.

I’m proud of the book as a whole. Of course I am. But then again, I wnat to move on and I don’t want to be just known as the guy who did "Palestine." I don’t want to be creatively trapped by it either.

Q: Tell me about this new book you’re working on.

A: I won’t tell you too much about it. I’m more than 2/3 of the way done. It’s a very long book. I’m up to page 230 now as we speak. It’s Gaza and some time I spent in southern -- Khan Yunis and Rasah. I spent time there in 2003 but it’s mainly a book of history. It’s a book about what happened in Gaza during Israel’s very short occupation of the Gaza strip in the 1956 war. So mainly I was just speaking to old people.
Q: Who’s going to be publishing that?

A: Metropolitan. They’re a division of Holt. They’ve never done a comic before, so this is something new for them.

Q: When will this be coming out?

A: Well I won’t be finished it until late next year, so my guess is 2009. And the way I’m going, I’ve got a lot to do.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: Another manga roundup

There have been a number of interesting manga releases in the last few months, which means it's time for another roundup. Here's a look at some of the more notable titles:

by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, 584 pages, $24.95.

Two homosexual lovers -- one a Catholic priest, the other a psychotic serial killer -- are bound together by a childhood trauma involving exposure to a military-created poison gas that destroyed an entire town.

As the crazed killer begins a murderous search for the remaining stockpile of the gas that drove him insane, the priest is forced to admit that his beloved might be beyond redemption.

This is another off-the-rails thriller along the lines of "Ode to Kirihito" and is chock full of Tezuka's usual visual brilliance.

As for its sexual politics ... well, let's be generous and call it old-fashioned. Tezuka is obviously sympathetic to gay rights, but he can't help from lapsing into regrettable stereotypes (especially where women are concerned).

Despite this, "MW" is a captivating read, filled with sequences that will have your jaw on the floor, either from disbelief at Tezuka's cartooning prowess or at the various 90-degree turns the story takes.

"Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White"
by Taiyo Matsumoto, Viz, 624 pages, $29.95.

Heavily influenced by the work of European artists like Moebius, Matsumoto's "Tekkonkinkreet" loosely follows the adventures of two scraggly street youths, the violent, overprotective Black and the naive, childlike White, as they battle other gangs, the yakuza and the encroaching gentrification of their beloved "Treasure Town."

There are a lot of metaphors and symbolism at work here, and readers looking for a straightforward narrative complete with a satisfying, easily summed up conclusion will be disappointed.

et Matsumoto's strengths are considerable, not the least being his exaggerated, fluid design and masterful pacing. If you need extra incentive, this handsome "all-in-one" edition includes color art, posters and an interview with the director of the anime adaptation.

"With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child Vol. 1"
by Keiko Tobe, Yen Press, 528 pages, $14.99.

Newcomer Yen Press debuted its manga line a few months ago with this unconventional (for American manga readers anyway) story of a new mother who discovers that her child is autistic.

Though it occasionally lapses into awkward melodrama, "Light" plays its cards relatively straight, effectively showing the burdens and joys of coping with a developmentally disabled child without coming off as teachy or preachy.

It's a surprisingly effective and at times moving account of the serious curves life can throw you. I'd recommend it not just to those interested in the subject matter, but to anyone who has been hesitant about exploring manga up till now.

by Kazuo Umezu, IDW, 320 pages, $14.99.

"Reptilia" is a loosely connected trilogy of short stories from the godfather of Japanese horror ("The Drifting Classroom") concerning a hideous snake woman who likes to terrorize little girls (though she rarely does more than threaten).

Apart from a few stellar sequences, there's not much here to send shivers down your back. This is a book that was obviously originally made for older children, with scares more along the lines of "There's a monster under the bed! Boo!" than anything too gory or disturbing.

There's enough good stuff here for me to recommend it to Umezu fans (the snake lady is drawn in a deliciously creepy fashion), but don't go in expecting anything as stellar as "Classroom."

"Gakuen Alice Vol. 1"
by Tachibana Higuchi, Tokyopop, 192 pages, $9.99.

This ongoing series has been a huge hit in Japan, selling several million books so far. It's not hard to see why, as it offers an intriguing blend of "Harry Potter" and "X-Men"-style fantasy combined with more traditional shojo manga idioms.

Despondent that her best friend, Hotaru, has abandoned her to attend a mysterious, exclusive prep school, young Mikun follows her to the big city only to discover that the school is actually a secret training academy for those with mysterious, paranormal powers.

Can Mikun find a place for herself in this strange school? Does she possess any unique abilities that would allow her to attend?

The first volume stumbles a bit as it tries to answer these questions -- the artwork is a bit too cluttered for one thing -- but it's not without charm and should appeal to its core base of teen girls.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Graphic Lit: Best of 2007

Overall, 2007 could be called a banner year for comics as the medium continued to garner mainstream traction.

The death of Captain America won major newspaper headlines, Naruto dominated the best-seller landscape, and Stephen King and Buffy the Vampire Slayer attracted scores of people who had never set foot in a comic shop before.

It was also a great year for high-quality books. Here’s a list of some of my own personal favorites:

Best Graphic Novel of the Year: “Exit Wounds” by Rutu Modan. Few books this year had the emotional heft and warmth that Modan’s story of romance and estranged family set in Israel did.

Runners Up: “Shortcomings” by Adrian Tomine; “Laika” by Nick Abadazis; “Alias the Cat” by Kim Deitch.

Best Nonfiction Comic: A tie between Bryan Talbot’s “Alice in Sunderland” and Larry Gonick’s “The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part One.” The former takes a scattershot, stream-of-consciousness approach to relating history. The latter offers a more straightforward and comical take. Both are stellar, immersive reads.

Runners-up: “Red Eye, Black Eye” by K. Thor Jensen; “Spent” by Joe Matt; “American Elf Book Two” by James Kochalka.

Best debut: “The Blot” by Tom Neely. Neely’s unsettling, accomplished work is the kind of book that makes you shake your head in disbelief that you’ve never read anything by this author before.

Runners-up: “Percy Gloom” by Cathy Malkasian; “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan; “Escape From Special” by Miss Lasko-Gross.

Best comic pamphlet: “The End” by Anders Nilsen. This is one of the most moving accounts about grief over the death of a loved one that I’ve ever read.

Runners Up: “Criminal” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips; “Casanova” by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.

Best Superhero Book: “Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil” by Jeff Smith. So many people have attempted to update the Big Red Cheese and failed. Only Smith proved up to the task.

Runners-up: “World War Hulk” by Greg Pak and John Romita Jr. The rare big crossover event that was actually readable.

Best Manga: “MW” by Osamu Tezuka. Even Tezuka’s lesser works are head and shoulders above most of the manga being published today.

Runners-up: “Death Note” by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata; “Uzumaki” by Junji Ito.

Best European book: “Aya” by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. An African expatriate and a Parisian artist tell charming slice-of-life story set in the Ivory Coast.

Runners-up: “Notes from a War Story” by Gipi; “Garage Band” by Gipi.

Best book I didn’t get around to reviewing in this column: “Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms” by Fumiyo Kouno. An emotionally wrenching manga about a family marked by the bombing of Hiroshima that deserves a wider audience.

Runners-up: “Chance in Hell” by Gilbert Hernandez; “I Killed Adolph Hitler” by Jason.

Best Kids Book: “Tiny Tyrant” by Lewis Trondheim. A hilarious, slyly subversive collection of stories about the world’s youngest — and brattiest — king.

Best reprint: “Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips.” One of the medium’s originators gets his due, and surprisingly proves to have aged rather well.

Runner-up: “I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks.”

Biggest Disappointment: “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier” by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. One of the most anticipated books of the year turns out to be a muddled, dense, overly referential mess.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007