In which I continue to take a look at select bound-and-published sequential narratives of recent vintage, some of which may still be on sale in a comics shop, book store or online merchant near you, if you’re lucky…or not, as the case may be.

Written/Illustrated by Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, $29.95

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is my first exposure to Sacco’s long-form work; while I’ve certainly been made aware of it in a multitude of places, the subject matter hasn’t intrigued me enough to make me want to sample more than the occasional piece I’d see from him in the odd anthology or website here and there. That said, I have been seeing his latest, Footnotes in Gaza, praised far and wide throughout the internet, in both long-form reviews and in a plethora of 2009 best-of lists- so when the opportunity to get a review copy of this work presented itself, I figured I’d better get with the program. I am not the most political creature in the world; I remain woefully ignorant, except for just the barest minimum of facts, of the whys and wherefores of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that informs this book. It just seems, in my unenlightened outlook, like a bloody, no-hope, senseless conflict that will never end. Sacco seeks to go back to the perceived roots of the conflict, by shedding light on two incidents that occurred as far back as 1956, and tying them in with the strife the region knows today. Like the best documentaries, Sacco both enlightens and entertains, especially if you appreciate good artwork; his Crumb-inspired style, with perhaps a dash of Scott McCloud and Howard Cruse in the mix as well, is excellent throughout, with several knockout illustrations of places mentioned in the account; a before-and-after comparison of Gaza City then and now early on is just one example. His figures, while cartoonish, are quite expressive, and he has a somewhat playful sense of panel placement and page design, which does contrast with the grim material but helps maintain reader interest by keeping it from becoming too much of a slog. This sort of illustrated journalism is a unique and precious thing, I think; it’s a engaging alternative to the traditional type, but make no mistake- this is serious stuff, and very informative. How much good it will do in the long run is probably open to debate, but sometimes the worth of a thing is in the doing, if I may get all philosophical for a moment. Well worth checking out if you have any interest in the subject matter at all, and certainly deserving of the praise it’s received. (A review copy was provided by the publisher)

Script: Mark Waid
Art: Emma Rios, Val Staples
Marvel Comics, $3.99 per issue

The venerable Doctor Strange character, first introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1963, is somewhat damaged goods these days, both literally and figuratively. Conventional wisdom these days holds that books starring magic-based protagonists just don’t sell, and point to the good Doctor’s checkered publishing history as proof positive; at least one Marvel writer seems to be openly disdainful of him, doing his very best, in the titles that he writes, to de-power and belittle the character whenever possible. That said, there’s enough love for the Doctor out there that we’ve been recently graced with at least one outstanding miniseries, Brian Vaughan’s 2006-2007’s Dr. Strange: The Oath, and this one looks like another keeper. Right now, Strange’s current status quo is that of disgraced former Sorcerer Supreme, stepping down and ceding the title to none other than obscure ’70s character Brother Voodoo, this all happening in comics that I didn’t read. He’s trying to get his life back together, having had his hands broken (this plays hell with spellcasting, y’know) by the Hulk, also in comics I didn’t read. This series opens with him attending a baseball game, but as so often is the case there’s a supernatural aspect to it which proves to be unfortunate  for one team’s manager. The manager’s granddaughter encounters Strange during the game, and it turns out she’s a latent powerful sorcerer herself, who needs instruction in using her abilities. Complications ensue, as they so often do, and the resolution is not exactly what you could call a happy one, although it does point to a new direction for the Doctor, if sales and editorial whims dictate. Mark Waid does a very good job of portraying Strange, who’s trying to keep a low profile and regroup- he’s a bit peevish and chastened, but still capable and even somewhat paternal towards his somewhat impetuous charge. Rios’ art wears its manga influences on its sleeve, but she does a good job keeping things moving along at a decent clip, and is a talent that bears watching. After everything that’s gone down with him, it’s gratifying to see that there’s room at Marvel for such a solid take on the former Sorcerer Supreme. Let’s hope we get some more, preferably from this team if possible.

Script/Art: Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba
DC Comics/Vertigo, $2.99 per issue

Of course, as a longstanding and hard-of-core Beatle fan, the first thing I associate with this title is that wonderfully gnarly riff that is the heart of the Fabs’ “Day Tripper.” The next thing is the lyric line “It took me so long/to find out.” Problem is, three issues in, I can’t rejoinder with the next answering line “…but I found out” just yet. A “day-tripper,” according to Webster’s, is British slang “for a person who takes a pleasure trip, returning home the same day”; and in a very loose sense, that could apply here, although the “pleasure” part is highly dubious. Daytripper seems to be presenting us with “Days in the Life” (another Beatle ref, hee hee) of one Bras de Oliva Domingos, who, when we first meet him at age 32, is not exactly loving life. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I tell you he gets shot in the face and killed at the end of #1. In #2, we see him at age 21, traveling with his Brazilian friend Jorge. He meets a most enigmatic and drop-dead gorgeous young lady, they make romance. He drowns at the end, or at least that’s what we’re told — the artists choose not to show us the actual event. #3? Somehow, we see him seven years later, still with the enigmatic young blonde, except this time they’re not pitching woo, they’re falling out. And yes, this issue ends with Bras dying yet again, this time stepping out in front of a truck. While I appreciate the surreal indie-film vibe of the whole thing, I must admit that I don’t have the slightest idea where this is all going or what exactly they’re trying to tell us here; however, this is a ten-issue limited series, so that gives me reason to believe that I will be enlightened before all is said and done. I hope so, anyway. Daytripper is the latest from Moon and Ba, the Á¼ber-talented Brazilian twin brothers who have made quite the name for themselves over the last few years, both together and separately; you may be aware of them via Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy series, or Image’s Casanova, with Matt Fraction. I remember their early work via AiT/PlanetLar, especially the charming fable Ursula. Even though the story may be opaque (and I sincerely hope this isn’t their attempt to repurpose Resurrection Man for Vertigo, heh heh), one thing holds true- their art is uniformly excellent, always pleasingly expressive and presented with outstanding detail. To me, Daytripper is worthwhile for the art alone; the only thing that really bugs me, besides the arbitrary nature of the first three issues so far, is why I should care about the perpetually morose, yet young, handsome and moneyed Bras in the first place. Perhaps if I had immersed myself in the total Moon/Ba Daytripper experience, read the forum on Whitechapel, watched the video interviews, etc., I’d be more in the know…but for now, I’m just bound by the limited perceptions of one who has read the first three issues cold, and the lotus flower has yet to open its petals for me. Will it do so in time? Stay tuned.

Scripts: Kieron Gillen
Art: Jamie McKelvie, Nikki Cook, Becky Cloonan, Andy Bloor and Sean Azzopardi
Image Comics, $3.50

This is the final issue of Phonogram for the foreseeable future, so Gillen tells us, and if that’s the way it must be, at least it goes out on a high note with a strong collection of stand-alone stories in concert with different artists, all dealing with the magic of music in all its myriad forms,  the raison d’Áªtre of both volumes of the series. Gillen’s always been less preoccupied with worldbuilding via the diverse cast of music-magic-wielding characters he’s introduced over the course of both series as he has been with, in a way, presenting his views on music he loves, specifically the Britpop scene of the mid to late 90s…and that has always given me a bit of a problem while reading both. Although I am deeply passionate about music from all decades, and can certainly relate to the conceit of music providing power (in a number of ways)  in the form of magic, that particular strain of Britpop (Happy Mondays, Oasis, the Smiths/Morrissey, etc.) is one that I’ve never really been all that interested in, even though I did kinda like the Stone Roses and did not care for Kula Shaker. I guess it’s an age thing; I was in my mid-late 30s when all that was happening, and to be honest, I’d heard a lot of what those bands were doing before, at least to my ears. I suppose if I was a Phonogram character, I’d be like the old-guy recluse, shacked up with all his 70’s vinyl, clutching my Roxy, Bowie and T.Rex albums and cackling like a madman…but I digress. Even though I may not quite be the target demographic for this series, I can still appreciate the passion behind what both Gillen and McKelvie (as well as the collaborators they’ve featured in the shorter backup stories)  have been trying to do, and I hope we get to see more someday.

Coming next week: Hope Larson’s Mercury, Boom! Studios’ NOLA, and that ever-popular favorite, “more”.

Please send review inquiries, love letters, and dirty pictures of your significant others to the email address which can be easily obtained by clicking the link at the beginning of this run-on sentence.