The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday December 6th

Comic Relief

"Box Office Poison" by Alex Robinson

Alex Robinson's book doesn't earn its title, and that's a compliment -- the term "box office poison" refers to an element of a motion picture (a bad actor or plot point, for instance) that causes audiences to stay away from theaters. Yet, like the better comedies of director Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill"), this 600-page volume is both artistically assured and full of mass appeal.

"Poison's" twentysomething ensemble includes a struggling fiction writer, three struggling cartoonists, a relatively successful magazine columnist and a roofie-dropping lech. Of course, there's sex, loss and moral quandaries galore, and at least one heartbreak as well. But this is light reading that regards humor above all.

Poorly employed culture mavens, as Kevin Smith has shown, can be damn funny. Robinson occasionally has fun with form, but the real draw here is the characters, who are more fully developed and likable than your own roommates. And they talk better.

"Sin City" by Frank Miller

Superhero comics star Frank Miller gave Batman true grit in 1986 with "The Dark Knight Returns." That book imagined Bruce Wayne giving up on an ultracapitalist future society in which Superman performs dictator Ronald Reagan's dirty work. The huge popularity of "Dark Knight" helped catapult comic books into their most commercial era ever, and Miller followed the success with a prolonged experiment in nihilism called "Sin City."

These books are brutal. A successor to Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, Miller presents a series of linked but nonlinear tales of hard-boiled crime noir. Most of these books, like "A Dame to Kill For" and "That Yellow Bastard," tell one large tale apiece, but the series' one story collection sums everything up pretty well: "Booze, Broads, and Bullets."

It goes without saying that these are guy-oriented books. Yet "Sin City's" glorification of sex-drenched violence falls squarely within noir's distinguished traditions of tragedy and irony. Miller's astounding visual style conveys these characters' only moral standpoint -- solid blacks and very little white.

"From Hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

In October, the movie adaptation of "From Hell," starring Johnny Depp, will hit theaters. Adapting this book to the screen can't have been easy, but even if the film proves unwatchable, its creators deserve praise for bringing attention to the original work.

Writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell render Jack the Ripper's London in intricate detail. This black-and-white melodrama is one of only a few graphic novels displaying both the breadth and coherence associated with the best traditional novels. (The majority of graphic novels correspond better to prose novellas.)

The book's Jack is a privileged player of a royal conspiracy -- his gruesome acts of state disguised as serial murders. Moore and Campbell's narrative, complex and meticulously researched, depicts a realm of squalid sex and workaday violence. Using the visual grammar of comics as deftly as most people use their lungs, the duo implies chilling spiritual connections between the famed killings of five women, the birth of a death-mad century and the shuddering fall of an empire.

"Batman: Black and White" by Various Writers & Artists

Of course, the classic superheros are still kicking (and punching and flying).

For awesome visuals and compelling storytelling starring one of comics' most famous characters, you can't do better than this anthology of short pieces by varied creators.

Though the colors are strictly limited to those stated in the title, this art never feels monochromatic. Most of the stories showcase stunning artwork -- "The Third Mask" brings Katsuhiro Otomo's rich "Akira" style to Western characters, while Matt Wagner ("Grendel") makes expert use of the precisely spaced shading dots known as Zip-Tone in "Heist."

The book's best bits pair top talents for perfect tales. British creators Neil Gaiman ("Sandman") and Simon Bisley ("Judge Dredd") reveal Batman and the Joker to be egotistical celebrities.

In another story, one-time Marvel Comics Editor-In-Chief Archie Goodwin and neo-pulp artist Gary Gianni reimagine Batman as a Shadow-esque dime-novel protector. With parody, pathos and a great sense of adventure, this book represents a pretty wide range of what superhero comics do best.

"Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth" by Chris Ware

Arguably the greatest achievement in the medium, Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth" is one of few recent comics to receive mainstream critical attention. Its titular protagonist, who is neither smart nor a kid, suffers through a dull cubicled life until the day his elderly father, whom he never knew, sends him a plane ticket.

Jimmy goes to see his pop, of course; and he comes back. What happens on the way? Not much, except a profound examination of the relationship between memory and time, propped up by the most heartbreaking story you're likely to find outside of a Meryl Streep film.

Ware never approaches sentimentality; instead he comes up with gorgeous ways to display inexpressible longing. His figures and cityscapes share a draftsmanlike precision. His command of the reader's moving eye -- this medium's truest test of mastery -- is perfect. Jimmy Corrigan isn't the smartest kid on earth, but Chris Ware might be.

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