DC's new graphic-novels-for-young-women line Minx makes an auspicious debut with The Plain Janes, illustrated by Jim Rugg and scripted by veteran juvenile-fiction writer Cecil Castellucci. After a popular high-school girl named Jane is injured in a terrorist attack, her parents move from the city to the suburbs, where Jane reinvents herself as an art-queen, and the ringleader of a group of unpopular girls—all Janes. In spite of the specter of terrorism and class conflict, The Plain Janes is anything but heavy. It's more an earnest, stirring underdog tale, in the tradition of Judy Blume and John Hughes. And unlike a lot of novice comic-book writers, Castellucci leaves Rugg plenty of space for the art to carry the story. The Plain Janes is far from the peak of the art form, but it's an above-average teensploitation story, and exactly the sort of book that'll bring non-comics readers to the medium, as Minx clearly aims to do… B+

Unlike Castellucci on The Plain Janes , bestselling author Jodi Picoult gives an object lesson on how not to write comics in her comic-writing debut on Wonder Woman (DC). Cramming the pages with so many words that artist Drew Johnson has little room to work, Picoult tries to put a personal stamp on a too-often-revised heroine by giving her a breezy interior monologue, which runs throughout the whole issue, winding it between dialogue and action scenes until it becomes impossible to follow. In Picoult's defense, she's saddled with a version of the character—recast as an undercover hero-hunter—that's hard to care much about. But Picoult's attempts to find Wonder Woman's relatable feminine center render the character as a bland everywoman, making the comic into generic hero slop… D+

It should come as no particular surprise that Avril Lavigne is the most annoying part of Avril Lavigne's Make 5 Wishes, Volume 1 (Ballantine). While it counts as yet another merchandising spin-off for Lavigne's new album, it would have worked fine as a stand-alone project, and it reads like it used to be one before writer Joshua Dysart and artist Camilla d'Errico wedged Lavigne into their story to get their book into print. The story follows Hana, an unpopular emo girl who drifts through her days and lives life through online aliases, until a wish-granting demon doll becomes her best friend. She's kind of a shallow twerp, but d'Errico's soulful, gorgeously colored, manga-influenced art gives her some depth, and the demon's unclear, dancing-on-the-fence morality keeps things interesting and uncertain. Far less interesting: Lavigne's gratuitous status as Hana's far-too-perfect imaginary best friend, who pops out of posters to dispense loving, super-wise advice… C+


In the opening pages of the first issue of DC's revamped The Brave And The Bold, Batman and Green Lantern discover identical corpses in impossible places—one in the Batcave, one in outer space—and for a while, it looks like writer Mark Waid and artist George Perez are going to deliver the kind of cleverly constructed single-issue mystery-adventure team-up that the original Brave And The Bold did so well. But the story quickly spirals into something larger and more unwieldy, setting up a multi-issue story arc that gets duller the further it moves away from the inciting incident. (By issue two, it becomes absolutely thudding.) Modern comic-book writers like to think of this kind of expansive storytelling as "ambitious," but it's actually pretty lazy, since as long as they can keep introducing characters and story twists, they never have to resolve anything. Which means they don't have to tell a "story" at all… C-

The four-issue DC miniseries World War III intends to tie up the wriggling strands of the yearlong 52 series, and reset the DC universe to where it was a year ago, when the "One Year Later" books started. (Never mind that most readers have forgotten what was going on in unreadable DC titles like Firestorm back in the middle of '06.) For a time, 52 seemed like a good model for superhero comics in the 21st century, since it made the most of the mega-plotting that modern adventure-comics writers prefer by teasing out the incremental changes in its characters' lives. But over the last couple of months, 52 has suffered the fate of all crossover events, building to a series of incomprehensible action sequences and pointless deaths. World War III attempts to connect this latest world-changing punch-up to the spiritual crisis of the Martian Manhunter, but it's a thin thread on which to hang enormous blocks of densely compacted narrative… D

Writer Mike Carey and artist John Bolton dive back into Vertigo's "Neil Gaiman-verse" with God Save The Queen, which uses a war between two fairy queens as the backdrop for a study of affectless Euro-youth. Reckless party girl Linda falls in with a group of hard-living folkloric creeps who've disengaged from the fairy war so they can lay around dingy flats and shoot heroin. When Linda becomes a pawn in the queen battle, she realizes exactly how the stakes affect her personally. Carey's gutter realism doesn't always mesh well with the fantasy elements, but Bolton's grotesque paintings look stunning, and Carey's subtle critique of current world affairs doesn't get entirely lost amid talk of changelings and the like… B


For most of the '90s, Terry LaBan was one of the best alternative cartoonists that almost nobody know, even though his incisive slice-of-life series Unsupervised Existence and Cud were published by such heavy hitters as Fantagraphics and Dark Horse. Lately, LaBan and his wife Patty have been occupied with the daily strip Edge City, which essentially transfers LaBan's hippie and punk characters to a place of middle-age respectability, with kids, jobs, and mortgages. The first Edge City collection (Andrews McMeel) is hardly groundbreaking, but it does engage the quirks and concerns of 21st-century suburban family life with a wisdom and wit that few contemporary strips manage… B

Continuing its mission to preserve the best of old cartooning alongside the best of the new, Drawn & Quarterly brings back into print Charles Briggs' Oh Skin-Nay!: The Days Of Real Sport, a collection of turn-of-the-century schoolboy gags accompanied by some flavorful Wilbur D. Nesbit doggerel. Recently featured in Seth's 40 Cartoon Books Of Interest, Oh Skin-Nay! is dated in the best way, reminding readers of trends long-gone, and how in some ways, kids never change… A-

Xavier Robel and Helge Reumann's Elvis Road (Buenaventura) isn't comics in the traditional sense, but it's in the vein of a lot of contemporary art-comics creators' sketches of crowded, wordless tableaux that could take lifetimes to decipher. Whether it's worth the effort is a matter for debate, but the way Robel and Reumann fill page after page—and string the pages together in an ingenious book design that compacts about 20 feet of drawings into one uncut sheet—is certainly something to see… B


Sam Kieth (The Maxx, Zero Girl) comes at every story he touches from a surreal, twisted angle, and Batman: Secrets (DC) is no exception, though it's odd to see him handling such an old superhero warhorse when he's produced such vibrant original work. As Batman books go, Secrets is relatively interesting, with a smart story about the Joker seizing on the mass media's image-hungry superficiality, but all Kieth's visual and textual references to books like Arkham Asylum and The Killing Joke seem less like respectful homages than like reminders of how overworked the Batman ground is, and how hard it is to take it somewhere fresh… Paul Pope fares a little better with Batman: Year 100 (DC), which revives the franchise in a grimy dystopian future where new police captain Jim Gordon struggles with his fascist state on behalf of a new Caped Crusader. Far from Batman Beyond, this is a tawdry, depressing, Orwellian world well suited to Pope's aggressively cramped visual style… Secrets: C+, Year 100: B

"Empowered" is an odd superhero name for a teary young wannabe who spends most of her time bound, gagged, stripped virtually naked, and being ruthlessly mocked by the villains who know what a pushover she is. Anticipating the point, creator Adam Warren even has a character in his trade collection Empowered 1 (Dark Horse) point out the problem. But while the book starts out pretty much as a series of brief softcore bondage skits with superhero-satirizing punchlines, Warren does grant his hapless heroine a little empowerment as the book goes on and she develops a personality almost as big as her boobs. While the running joke about Empowered losing her super-strength whenever her phenomenally fragile alien power-suit gets torn (sometimes to barely-there scraps, sometimes off her entirely) grows old, Warren compensates by gradually ramping up the story complexity, as his parodic hero-packed world, his heroine's relationships, and the supporting cast get fleshed out. Emphasis on "flesh"… B

A much more staid new Dark Horse compilation, Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser collects Marvel Epic's four-issue early-'90s adaptation of Fritz Leiber's fantasy stories, as scripted by American Flagg!'s Howard Chaykin and illustrated by Hellboy's Mike Mignola. For all but the most fervent Leiber fans, comics proves the perfect medium for these stories: With the page-long, ultra-dense descriptive sentences transformed into artwork, the stylized high-fantasy dialogue has room to breathe, and the colorful adventures zip along. Chaykin sticks close to the source material, and Mignola's blunt, chunky art is as neatly detailed and expressive as ever… A-


Volume 2 of American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries Of James Kochalka (Top Shelf) looks like a slim afterthought on the shelf next to the massive volume 1, even though it contains two full years of Kochalka's daily four-panel blog cartoons. But like volume 1, it proves that the rhythm of Kochalka's strips completely changes when they're read in bulk. The daily dose is quirky minor fun, but compiled, they develop a compelling, complicated, addictive rhythm that's charmingly at odds with the ultra-simple art. It's autobiography a few scant words at a time, and it's pretty irresistible… A

Top Shelf's Essex County Volume 1: Tales From The Farm is far less user-friendly; Jeff Lemire's harsh, poignant story about an orphaned boy and his friendship with a local lunk takes some easing into, as Lemire establishes the country pacing of the kid's life on his uncle's farm, where he mopes around his chores and clings to superhero fantasies. Lemire's art recalls a finer, scratcher version of Douglas TenNapel's, but his melancholy, low-affect storytelling is more personal… B

At this point, Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim's ongoing Dungeon series has enough branches that each new book comes with a little map explaining where the volume fits into the jumpy chronology. Dungeon Parade Volume 1: A Dungeon Too Many (NBM) is a humorous aside that could directly follow Duck Heart, the very first Dungeon book; it's complicated enough story-wise to be a poor entry into the series, but its two stand-alone stories are lighter and less dense than most of the duo's inside look at the workings of a fantasy dungeon full of hero-killing monsters. At the same time, Manu Larcenet's art is as colorfully ultra-busy as ever… B+


It has to be annoying for Harlan Ellison fans to lay out the bucks for Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, only to read Ellison's jeremiads about how they didn't support the series 10 years ago. The second and final collection of the Dark Horse series of comic adaptations of Ellison's stories features interstitial pages on which Ellison (suffering various tortures or carrying out various odd activities, sometimes with multiple copies of himself) introduces the stories at bothersome length, boosting the creators and castigating the readers in headache-inducing prose. "That it sold less than the most mundane rehash of an X-book, well, it wasn't our fault, or Dark Horse's fault, or even the market's fault. It was yours. You never knew how good you had it," Ellison rants on the final page. Good to know that the unappealing anthology format and his overly wordy, increasingly dated-seeming, often annoyingly draggy Twilight Zone-esque stories couldn't possibly have had anything to do with it. The book contains some terrific art, some snappy writing, and some wearying padding, but with just a few curmudgeonly sentences, Ellison manages to make the whole book taste like sour grapes… C

Mike Carey offers a more graceful bow in Lucifer Volume 11: Evensong (Vertigo), which collects the final installments of his Sandman spin-off, bringing the story to a graceful cosmic conclusion. With the climax already reached most of the loose ends already tied up, this last volume seems largely unnecessary, and most of the stabs at drama are weak and halfhearted. But Carey's more mundane stories, which bring old characters together so they can say goodbye to each other and their story, are bittersweet and touching, and the final sendoff seems entirely appropriate for a stellar series. B-