- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

This chronic feature lets me review what’s recently passed my bloodshot pupils. So pull up a chair, break out the sarcasm filter and welcome to:

Mr. Zad’s comic critique

• Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist: Volume 2. Trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics, $17.95).

Readers get an eclectic selection of tales compiled from a quarterly sequential-art anthology series. The series explores the adventures of golden-age superheroes featured in fictional comic books created by Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, fictional writers chronicled in Mr. Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

Got it? Made perfect sense to me after I downed a couple of aspirin.

Never mind the origins. Just relish the creative firepower of such stalwarts as Steve Conley, Brian K. Vaughn, C. Scott Morse and Kevin McCarthy, who bring the heroic tales of the Escapist, trusty sidekick Big Al and heroine Luna Moth to print.

Most tales feature a section spinning a yarn that merrily mimics the history of comic-book fans and publishers before getting to a finely crafted comic-book adventure.

Take the case of “Heil and Fear Well,” which is prefaced by a note from Bubbles LaTour letting readers know it is the only Escapist story ever published by EC Comics. Bubbles also explains a bit about the Comic Code Authority of the 1950s and why publisher William Gaines abandoned a series titled Swastika Man.

The action uses the work of legend Marv Wolfman with a story by Joe Staton about a postwar Nazi operative seeking to bring the Third Reich to America as the Escapist tries to stop him.

By the way, the book comes sized for the current Manga-crazed readership. At 53/8 by 83/8 inches, it will fit in an oversized back pocket. However, the size does little to emphasize the fantastic artwork.

What’s it worth? It takes a while to warm up to the layers of sequential-art pseudo-history, and the depth of the cool characters’ tongue-in-cheek humor taxes the noggin. Nevertheless, the mix will give the veteran comic-book fan a priceless experience.

• Creatures of the Night, graphic novel (Dark Horse Comics, $12.95).

A pair of bizarre tales from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book “Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions” come to life through the beautifully eerie style of artist Michael Zulli.

This hardcover sequential-art work features 48 pages of painted brilliance highlighting a black cat protecting a family from bad luck in the Price and the historical piece the Daughter of Owls that explores the tragic life of an abandoned girl who grows up with looks that inspire good and evil among the townsfolk sworn to protect her.

Each tale feels ripped from a “Night Gallery” episode as strange twists, characters and conclusions Edgar Allan Poe would appreciate proliferate.

What’s it worth? I would not consider Neil Gaiman’s prose the best of his career, but Mr. Zulli’s work far exceeds the price of admission.

• The Nikopol Trilogy, trade paperback (DC Comics, $17.95).

Republished under DC Comics’ deal with Humanoid Publishing, which offers mature American audiences access to European science-fiction and fantasy sequential-art stories, this 176-page masterpiece highlights the award-winning epic of Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal.

A trio of tales follows the life of political dissident Alcide Nikopol, who returns to Earth after a nasty bout with orbital suspended animation. He runs into the renegade Egyptian god Horus, who decides to inhabit his body. Alcide’s life becomes about toppling a corrupt Parisian fascist government, dealing with a psychotic investigative reporter and learning how to exist in a post-apocalyptic world.

Set in the year 2023, the work oozes grit and detail. Readers will feel caught in the dirtiness of a Blade Runner universe reflected through an intense art style befitting any issue of Heavy Metal magazine.

Mr. Bilal unleashes a brutally bizarre and sometimes disturbing visual environment as his prose mocks religion, sports, politics, relationships and life.

What’s it worth? The book will captivate any older science-fiction fan, and the oppressive themes may require at least a couple of therapy sessions for the reader.

• JLA/Avengers: The Collector’s Edition, slipcased hardcover (Marvel Comics/DC Comics, $75).

A 20-year dream to cross over the two mightiest superhero teams spawned by rival comic-book publishing universes came to fruition last year: Legendary writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez delivered a four-issue miniseries chronicling what would happen if the Justice League of America met Marvel’s Avengers.

This collector’s edition contains a pair of hardcover books that serves as a way for sequential-art lovers to relish the rich, detailed pages illustrated by Mr. Perez, in a format almost twice as large as the standard comic. It also gives amateur historians a chance to find out what took so long to get the project to print.

The secrets are revealed in the second book, which, as a summary of the entire sordid affair, reprints interviews with the primary protagonists, Jim Shooter from Marvel and Dick Giordano from DC. It offers the original 21 penciled pages done by Mr. Perez in 1983 and concludes with an encyclopedic set of footnotes revealing that the superhero comic book mythology has more textured complexity than a DNA strand.

What’s it worth?# Mr. Perez’s fans gladly would pay double for this enlarged reproduction of one of his most significant works. Superhero lovers will consider this the ultimate coffee-table set to display to friends.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016; fax 202/269-1853; e-mail jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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