- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

‘Naruto: Uncut Boxed Set, Volume 2, Special Edition’

(Viz Media, $69.99)

Masashi Kishimoto’s hyperactive, knuckleheaded ninja, Naruto Uzumaki, gets a special DVD boxed set to highlight some of his popular animated adventures seen on Cartoon Network.

Our star is an obnoxious brat who loves to boast and antagonize opponents — and mentors, too, but eventually manages to warm their hearts through his determination and honesty. In the series, Naruta, Sasuke Uchiha and Sakura Haruno struggle together as ninjas in training — and as Team 7, they learn the secrets of the warrior art and experience the world.

This latest boxed set contains 12 shows on three discs that cover the latter part of the team’s mission to protect a bridge builder and go up to the first test given during the chunin (journeyman ninja) exams.

The show does a fantastic job of mixing drama and humor, along with pounding youngsters over the head with ideals such as courage, discipline, teamwork and friendship. This is the uncut version of the show; it offers a bit more blood but is highly recommended for any tween and older who loves a great animated story.

The extras: Very slim pickings in the way of multimedia interactivity: Fans only get storyboards from a scene in episode 22 and a way to click to a clip from the show for comparison. Viz needs to look at the Simpsons DVD set to understand how to really take advantage of the DVD medium within its “storyboard-to-show” comparison.

However, Viz makes up for the on-screen deficiencies with cool items stuffed into the DVD box. These include a booklet, in Japanese, of the storyboards to Episode 15 and a heavy-duty headband, necklace and drawstring bag, all imprinted with the Sand Village symbol.

Read all about it: The Naruto show nearly mirrors the Japanese comic book (manga) on which it is based. Viz Media has compiled the black-and-white manga serial into trade paperbacks, and fans can read Naruto, Volumes 3 to 5 ($7.95 each) to see how the sequential art translated into a cartoon.

‘The Simpsons — The Complete Ninth Season’

(Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, $49.98)

The 1997-98 season of the pop-culture phenomenon from Springfield arrives on DVD and offers a fantastic experience for fans of the delightfully dysfunctional family.

Through a four-disc set, viewers get 25 episodes of the Fox show packaged with six postcards of the Simpsons’ inspired album art and an introductory booklet (based on a Rolling Stone design) for each episode to navigate the intricate release.

Among the 22-minute gems found in the set, I most enjoyed the “Treehouse of Horror” extravaganza (punctuated with an interesting take on the origin of Halloween), Krusty the Clown’s work with Jay Leno in “The Last Temptation of Krust” and the Emmy-winning 200th episode, which features an appearance by U2 and Steve Martin as the sanitation commissioner.

Best extra: Creator Matt Groening and his production gang always offer one of the best DVD experiences out there, and Season 9 is no exception.

In addition to clever navigation menus, optional commentary tracks for every show and plenty of deleted scenes, viewers get animatic and storyboard comparisons shown against a “picture-in-picture” presentation of the featured shows (delivered with the help of the angle button on the controller).

In a few episodes, animators use a telestrator — the gizmo that football game commentators use to sketch plays on top of a TV image — to give some background on the scenes. Then there’s “Trash of the Titans” dubbed in Polish — it’s “doskonaly,” as my Warsaw brethren might say, meaning “excellent.”

Read all about it: Now in its 14th year, Bongo Comics continues to deliver a monthly Simpsons comic book ($2.99 each).

‘SpongeBob SquarePants: Season 4, Volume 2’

(Paramount Home Entertainment, $36.99)

Most folks know by now who lives in a pineapple under the sea, but do they realize that this animated poriferan has delighted them with his Bikini Bottom shenanigans for seven years?

A new DVD set offers the latest exploits of SpongeBob and the gang through 20 episodes compiled on a pair of discs that encompass the second half of the fourth season of the Nickelodeon show.

Let’s not discuss the annoying trend of media companies to package half a season’s worth of shows together and not the entire season. Instead, let’s just relish the collection of 12-minute nuggets that highlight a hilarious, waterlogged universe loaded with strange characters Looney Tunes would admire.

Some of the best episodes on the disc include “Karate Island,” an eye-watering homage to Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death”; “New Leaf,” with the irascible Plankton and Mr. Krabbs in the limelight; “Squidtastic Voyage,” which mocks the sci-fi classic “Fantastic Voyage”; and the totally silly “Wigstruck,” which finds SpongeBob fascinated with a powdered wig.

The extras: Compared to other cartoon legends’ DVD releases, such as those of the Simpsons and Family Guy, SpongeBob’s bonus content is lamer than a crabby patty without the secret sauce and pickles. It is the barest of bare bones, my friend, with just a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (hosted by an idiot named Pickboy), five 30-second shorts and a music video.

Read all about it: Nick Magazine ($3.99 each) offers a pull-out comic-book section right in the middle of every issue, and some over the years have been devoted to the exploits of SpongeBob. The comics section is also a great place to check out some underappreciated comic artists such as James Kochalka, Dan Abdo and Sam Henderson, who offer strips in many of the issues.