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NPR Arts & Life

Lighter Than Air: An End-Of-Summer Comics Collection

As summer winds up, everything seems to slow down. The last of the hot days seem to demand you take it easy before fall really kicks in. These three works — two collections of comics and one graphic novel — are perfect to pore over in a patch of muggy sunlight. They deliver adventure, heroism and romance, but nothing too taxing in the way of themes. Some have their problems, but tolerant readers will find that all offer ample rewards. And while the stories are absorbing, you won't lose the thread if you abandon them for an impromptu nap.

In Exquisite Corpse, Pénélope Bagieu creates a heroine who's at first tough to sympathize with. Zoe, you see, doesn't read. "Actually ... I've never been in a bookstore before," she confesses awkwardly at one point. Her ignorance would seem to set up a fairly conventional plot arc, especially when she meets a reclusive writer by flirting with him through his apartment windows. Thomas Rocher is charming, but he's also self-obsessed and oblivious to Zoe's emotional needs — not that she's quite certain herself what they are. When she does make her first visit to a bookstore and admits the embarrassing truth to a salesguy, it seems clear what her story will be. Surely she'll dip her toes into some literature and, in the course of developing a life of the mind, either tame Thomas or show him the door.

But that's not what happens. Instead, Bagieu crafts a fiendishly unexpected denouement that combines feminist politics with a generous affection for her heroine. Exquisite Corpse would be a delightful story even without Bagieu's loopy, deceptively unsophisticated illustrations. But her sketches are eloquent even when they're just depicting Thomas' cat or Zoe's conventionally awful boyfriend. Zoe's face seems to tremble with sensitivity, the rising and fading flush of her cheeks betraying every reaction. Thomas' sleek, malicious wife, Agathe — yes, it turns out that he's got a wife — is full of secrets. Thomas himself is a charming, unshaven bumbler, the kind any woman wants to rescue. But rescue isn't in the cards in this book, unless you count Zoe's rescue of herself. And that's accomplished most unconventionally.

How you feel about IDW's new Nemo will depend largely on your response to one aspect of it: color and more color, poured out lavishly by Nelson Daniel. Little Nemo Return to Slumberland gleams with the reflective sheen and forceful palette of a muscle car's chassis. It's utterly at odds with the original strip's ambience, and it's hardly narcoleptic. In fact, there's something downright wakey-wakey about such assertive shades — they practically smack you in the eye. But the scheme also has a specifically modern feel, seeming to bow in the direction of the Superflat art movement. It offsets the never-ending depths of Gabriel Rodriguez's intricate layouts, particularly a tower with an interior borrowed from Escher.

That borrowing, alas, feels less like an homage than a swipe. You can't very well update Little Nemo in Slumberland without creating lots of visual puzzles, and as the story progresses Rodriguez and Eric Shanower seem to run out of ideas. The panel layouts are a real missed opportunity, with uniform rectangles predominating. But the characters' adventures in exotic Slumberland are still engaging, and they're always beautifully drawn. Shanower's Nemo is a pretty good character — a conventional boy with occasionally wooden dialogue, he has little interest in playing with the Princess of Slumberland. The rascally Flip is imagined well, while Impy is (perhaps wisely) dispensed with. Diehard Winsor McCay aficionados may disdain this update, but there's much here to divert open-minded readers.

One of the perplexing things about the most memorable heroes is the implausible scope of their powers. Sherlock Holmes isn't just a supreme reasoner who's knowledgeable about crime, he's also a skilled actor, boxer, martial artist and marksman. Dracula's Abraham van Helsing is "a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day, [with] an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, an indomitable resolution ... and the kindest and truest heart that beats." What drives any ordinary person to acquire such range? Five Ghosts offers an ingenious response. In it, macho treasure hunter Fabian Gray is possessed by five literary spirits whose abilities he can manifest: The Wizard, the Archer, the Detective, the Samurai and the Vampire. "I am no stranger to the darkness," he declares. "I wonder now if the darkness should fear me."

No one with such capacities could possibly fail to traverse the globe on all sorts of death-defying quests, and writer Frank J. Barbiere keeps the action coming. This volume opens with our hero fighting zombies in Romania and winds up with him strapped to Dr. Moreau's operating table. Along the way, he's got plenty of opportunities to show off his diverse powers, not to mention his hunky physique. Artist Chris Mooneyham excels at action sketches, lending real excitement to the familiar clashes. The story isn't as exotic as those of the first two volumes, sadly. Creepy though he is, Moreau can't compete with the devotees of the Spider God. But when van Helsing himself makes an appearance, you know you're in for adventure of the highest order.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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