Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, etc.) based his graphic novel Pride Of Baghdad (Vertigo) on an actual news story about lions escaping the Baghdad Zoo in the wake of American air bombardments, but the story itself is half fantasy and half metaphor. It concentrates largely on the lions' personalities, relationships, and conversations as they explore the world outside their cage for the first time. The symbolism gets heavy-handed as they find out that freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially among liberators who shoot first and justify later. But the fairy-tale aspect and Niko Henrichon's art are both top-notch… A

In spite of the rock 'n' roll title, Ellen Forney's I Love Led Zeppelin (Fantagraphics) covers a range of topics, from drugs to gender politics to buildings that look like genitalia. These mostly one-page strips are drawn simply, but include a lot of inserts and diagrams, designed to explicate the seedier (and often more fun) side of life. Forney is instructive, whether you want to know how to be a call girl, or what's like to hang out with Camille Paglia… B+

A mash-up of Hellblazer and a music blog, the Kieron Gillen-penned, Jamie McKelvie-drawn Phonogram (Image) miniseries follows the adventures of an ultra-masculine "phonomancer," a magic-user whose powers appear to be tied up in music. Issue one sees him traveling to a feminist music festival and meeting some trouble. So far, it's wicked, witty fun, but the sense that Gillen and McKelvie really get how loving music can feel like a matter of life and death makes it a title to watch. Well, that and the awesome Britpop-themed covers… B


Two issues in (counting the "#0" preview issue), Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes' new take on Justice League Of America (DC) is looking pretty strong, anchored by a Meltzer-style mystery involving Red Tornado, and some rich interior monologues by the big three: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Like Identity Crisis and Meltzer's excellent run on Green Arrow, the new JLA seems to be gearing up more as a serialized drama than a widescreen action movie, which may prove frustrating over the long haul. But for now, it makes for entertaining reading… A-

Prolific Norwegian cartoonist Jason delivers what may be his best graphic novella to date: The Left Bank Gang (Fantagraphics), a clever what-if that imagines Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce as cartoonists bumming around Paris and obsessing over their art form, like a '20s version of Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth. It's a funny conceit, enriched by deadpan sight gags and a second-half twist that borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. And as always, Jason comes up a last-page punch that makes the whole book perfectly poignant… A

Jim Henson's 1986 movie Labyrinth never particularly cried for a sequel, but its ending is open-ended enough to give writer Jake T. Forbes plenty of hooks for Return To Labyrinth (Tokyopop). In the first of three volumes, the film's kidnapped infant Toby has grown into a troubled teenager; like his sister before him, he's attracted the attention of the Goblin King, who attentively and somewhat maliciously grants his wishes regardless of his intentions. Chris Lie's manga-styled art renders the characters from the first film poorly, but captures the essence of Brian Froud's creature designs on the less fussily rendered original characters, and the busy story builds to an intriguing volume-one cliffhanger. Also in this volume, a more beautifully rendered preview of a Dark Crystal spinoff comic to come… B


Outside of the still-quarterly, still-essential Mome, Kramers Ergot (Buenaventura) is the most important ongoing anthology for the current wave of art-comix. The latest installment—the sixth overall—is handsomely packaged, though not especially informative about its contents and contributors. And like most contemporary art-comix collections, it runs the gamut from hopelessly obscure scribbling to hauntingly abstract short stories. Highlights include new work by Raw legend Jerry Moriarty, a reprint of an old Japanese Norakuro funny-animal war comic, and a Chris Ware appreciation of Dutch underground cartoonist Marc Smeets… B+

Ware also contributes an essay to the eighth issue of Comic Art(Buenaventura), a collection of high-toned comics analysis. Ware breaks down Richard McGuire's seminal art-comic "Here" as a lead-in to an extensive, long-overdue McGuire interview. Comics Art #8 also includes a Drew Friedman career retrospective, a history of the speech balloon, a deeper look into Jim Starlin's "Warlock" comics, and a separate booklet in which cartoonist Seth surveys his book collection. It's an impressive package, essential for anyone who takes comics seriously… A

Anders Nilsen's thick art-comic Monologues For The Coming Plague (Fantagraphics) contains loosely connected, crudely rendered drawings from Nilsen's sketchbook—one drawing per page, for well over 100 pages. Some of it's funny, and some of it's engagingly surreal, but it doesn't really amount to much, and though this may sound like the worst kind of anti-modern-art philistinism, is a set of unimpressive doodles really worth twenty bucks? D+


By contrast, Jeffrey Brown's sketchbook collection I Am Going To Be Small (Top Shelf) is cheaper, funnier, and entertaining even at its dumbest, as when Brown spends a full page on a drawing of a penis with an elephant head). Those who can't stand Brown's self-indulgent relationship diaries should read his humor strips, which put his emo side in context. Whatever his faults, he has a sense of humor about himself. Sample: A "Jeffrey Brown" one-panel comic by Jeffrey Brown, featuring Jeffrey Brown asking a faceless girl to "hold hands and listen to some whiny indie rock"… B+

First, Deutsche Grammophon commissioned alternative cartoonists to draw covers for classical-music collections. Now, Viking has comic-book artists providing spot illustrations for classic works of literature. The first two on the shelf are The Illustrated Dracula, by Bram Stoker and Jae Lee, and The Illustrated Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte and Dame Darcy. Both could use more pictures, but their very existence is encouraging… Both: A-

Following up on last year's entertaining North Korean travelogue Pyongyang, Guy Delisle recounts an earlier adventure in supervising Asian animators in Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China (Drawn & Quarterly). Like the previous book, Shenzen focuses on the repetitive grind of working, eating, and in spare moments, seeking out and appreciating the unique character of an undemocratic nation. Delisle's reportage is appealingly brisk and casual, and in a way, without even meaning to, his work has become emblematic of how we're living in a comics golden age. When a piece of graphic non-fiction like this, so smart and unpretentious, can find a place on bookshelves, then the decades-old dream of people like Harvey Pekar and Gary Groth has been realized… A-


Bill Willingham's fairy-tale-mining series Fables is still going so strong that spin-offs were almost inevitable. Willingham and Matthew Sturges' new ongoing monthly Jack Of Fables features one of Fables' most underserved (and most obnoxious) characters exploring new territory on his own; the first issue is heavy on the backstory and the excessive stiff narration, but it's still off to an intriguing start, with the titular Jack captured and forced into a weird themed concentration camp, where he finds an old acquaintance naked in his bed… B+

DC's Absolute Editions are must-haves for comics fans with deep pockets, thanks to production values that cast even the best-read titles in a new light. Absolute Dark Knight collects Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns—Miller's groundbreaking 1986 revision of the Batman legend set in the crime-fighter's not-so-golden later years—and 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The former pops with new life, once again stripping Batman to his human core and making him a more mythic figure than ever. Its imitators never got that second part; it paved the way for a decade of grim-and-gritty characters who barely lived up to the word "hero." Mark Waid and Alex Ross' 1996 series Kingdom Come was in no small part an answer to that (and was a better sequel, in its way, to DKR than Dark Knight Strikes Again). Like DKR, it's a latter-days tale, but one that finds the heroes of yore teaching a new generation what heroism's all about, then pondering its complexities. Ross' gorgeous paintings sometimes freeze the story, but it's never looked better than on these pages… Both: A-

Before he became comics' premier hot-spot journalist, Joe Sacco spent time touring Europe as a roadie for Portland garage-rock band The Miracle Workers, and he drew about the experience memorably in the second issue of Yahoo, "In The Company Of Long Hair." That story is reprinted in the new collection But I Like It (Fantagraphics), along with some sketches from that tour, samples of posters and record sleeves for local rockers, and a handful of other music-related Sacco ephemera. It's no Palestine, but Sacco-philes should welcome this all-but-lost chapter in the development of one of this generation's greatest cartoonists… B+


Ted Naifeh's latest series, Polly And The Pirates (Oni) isn't as much eerie, eldritch fun as his Courtney Crumrin books, but it has many of the same hallmarks—a weirdly drawn young heroine (why doesn't Courtney have a nose? Why doesn't Polly have feet?) with special ancestral talents, a creepy and suitably cartoony supporting cast, and a grand and wholly unpredictable adventure. The collected Volume 1 features a great deal of jolly swashbuckling fun, plus a complete story that still leaves room for a lot more to come… A- Paul Jenkins' work includes run on Hellblazer, which may have helped inspire his limited series Revelations (Dark Horse), now collected in a tidy graphic-novel package. The central mystery, about an ugly death in the Vatican, has all Hellblazer's heavy occult tone and grim affect, and the chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing, grumpy investigator protagonist is all too familiar. What really makes this book stand out from the occult-mystery pack is Humberto Ramos' uniquely cartoonish art, which makes Jenkins' characters look like smooth dolls with insectile eyes. The story leaves a lot to be desired, but the color, craft, and composition can't be beat… C+ At this point, pretty much every installment of Astro City can be met with a hearty "Finally!" But the long waits would provoke a different kind of reaction if the series weren't so damn good. Astro City Special #1: The Eagle And The Mountain (Wildstorm) is a slow-burn one-shot story with little real action and a simple metaphorical punchline, but writer Kurt Busiek gets 40 pages to sprawl out and build his story slowly, so when that punch comes, it packs an impressive wallop… B+ It's no big surprise that the manga series that inspired Park Chan-wook's propulsive revenge drama Oldboy is a very different experience from the film. But it's still jarring to see such the story play out with manga conventions in Old Boy Volume 1 (Dark Horse): A Western-looking hero (clean-shaven and big-nosed), dialogue-free pages of tiny panels packed with environmental details (feet on a floor, startled eyes, dripping sweat), and quick-scan pages that nonetheless only move the story forward slowly. The manga's story isn't nearly as propulsive and grim as the film version, but as soon as their plotlines begin to deviate, the manga becomes just as compelling, as the question becomes "Where does the story go from here?"… B+ The movie Pathfinder has been delayed until January, but pre-sold fans writhing in anticipation can get a jump on things with Dark Horse's graphic-novel version, illustrated by Christopher Shy from Laeta Kalogridis' script and storyboards. The whole thing actually reads like a storyboard, with far too much action-summarizing narration patching the holes between images, but those images—heavily inspired by Frank Frazetta by way of Black Orchid-era Dave McKean—are absolutely gorgeous, and they make trailers for the film look dingy by comparison… B

V For Vendetta artist David Lloyd isn't the most prolific guy around, but his new graphic novel Kickback (Dark Horse) confirms that his talent for gritty expressionism remains undiminished. Lloyd also provides the script, and while his questionable grasp of American slang proves an occasional distraction, he's still a gripping storyteller. This tale of a cop delving into a city-wide mystery is a valiant attempt to create an unexpected twist on the noir genre, one with redemption at the end of a long, dark tunnel. B