|Peter Bagge’s “Other Lives’’ (left) tracks a geeky bunch leading double lives. In “Market Day,’’ James Sturm’s art is lean and economical (above), and Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “Black Blizzard’’ is pulp fiction with a sense of melodrama.|
Exploring alternate realities and classic characters
Dash Shaw’s “Bodyworld’’ is a sensory knockout, the most striking of three recent graphic novels touching on virtual and other alternate realities, tantalizing and timely concepts. Along with Peter Bagge’s “Other Lives’’ and Andi Ewington’s profoundly collaborative “45,’’ it suggests a new twist on a science fiction trope: the mutability and creation of identity.
The three other works dwell on the past. James Sturm’s “Market Day’’ is a painterly, straightforward narrative about the irrelevance of craftsmanship in a marketplace that values price point over the artisanal. Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “Black Blizzard’’ is a proto-Manga venture into pulp fiction, and Alex Ross’s “Rough Justice’’ represents a handsome interpretation of superhero graphics.
“Bodyworld’’ draws you in with its multicolored, laminated cover and glued-in end-piece guides to Boney Borough, an imaginary community in the Virginia of 2060. Most pages are three by four panels, the drawings a mix of stark black and white outlines with color accents, vivid yet dark.
“Bodyworld’’ is the story of Professor Paulie Panther, an undercover botanist, drug abuser, and download maven researching a bizarre plant for its mind-altering properties. He lusts for, then runs afoul of, Jem Jewel, a sexy science teacher at Boney Borough High School; comes onto Pearl Peach, a high school kid who pines for Billy-Bob Borg, a jock addicted to Diegunk, a salve associated with the dangerous game of Dieball, Boney Borough’s hottest export; and falls under the spell of Johnny Scarhead, an alien seed-generator eager to make the human race a super-organism that can be easily subjugated.
Amazingly complex and impressively engrossing, the book is a trip in which plants simultaneously resemble hearts and penises; researchers empathize to the point of personality exchange; and ecstasy is the other side of danger’s coin. The book is erotic and kinky, blending sci-fi, musings on the efficacy of psychedelics, commentary on high school character assassination, and an ending sure to give you delicious creeps.
Bagge’s black-and-white “Other Lives’’ tracks a geeky bunch, including a conspiracy theorist specializing in cyber surveillance (who may be working for Homeland Security), the wondrously named journalist Vader Ryderbeck, his manic wife, and an insurance adjuster who’s a secret gaming addict. Everyone leads double lives, so Second Life, a subscription-only virtual, online world where visitors create alter egos in the form of avatars and engage in relationships and commerce, functions as a plot overlay. Bagge’s art is rubbery and expressive; he has clearly assimilated the style and attitude of such underground comic masters as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. This is an entertainment in which all those identities eventually and amusingly sort themselves out.
Set in the near future, “45’’ follows James Stanley, a journalist and soon-to-be-father, who decides to forgo a test that would determine whether his child carries the Super-S gene, a marker for super powers. He decides to interview 45 individuals who have the gene to gain some insight into what life for his child potentially could be like.
The interviews are paired with full-color, full-page art by 45 different graphic masters. The mix of styles illustrates the ways different artists portray character. Ewington’s book winds up as a meditation on morality, grazing topics like mind control (and mental freedom), the limits of power, family boundaries and obligations, and mortality. One spread takes a family through the birth and death of their Super-S child in one fell and lethal swoop.
“Market Day’’ is a graphic novella about a Jewish rug maker in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s whose livelihood is threatened when the shopkeeper to whom he sold his wares decides to sell only cheap, manufactured goods. It can be read as an allegory of the shift from neighborhood store to big box or as nostalgia for a time of personal transactions when products were meant to last. Sturm’s art is lean and economical, like Edward Hopper’s; in the middle of this is a spread of a landscape featuring a horse-drawn cart and workers grimly sawing a log on a two-by-four. The dignity of Sturm’s art makes this story of Mendleman’s unraveling particularly poignant. It is homage to a time in which commerce had as much personality as the community it drove.
“Black Blizzard’’ and “Rough Justice’’ are template works that may interest graphic novel and comic book fans more than the general reader. The former replicates the Manga master’s 1956 debut. It is pulp fiction marked by great sound effects, vigorous chiaroscuro lines, and an unerring sense of melodrama. “Rough Justice’’ is more elaborate and refined and a must for fans of classic DC Comics characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Sandman, and Mr. America. It’s packed with deleted scenes, proposed superhero revamps that never saw light of day, and pencil “trailers’’ for a comic book about Batboy, Batman’s imaginary son. Ross’s art is iconic and brilliant; this warm, candid presentation shows how a master like Ross can age even an immortal with an extra line on a cheek.
Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland who regularly reviews graphic novels for The Boston Globe, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.