Etelka Lehoczky

There's something a bit uncanny about Apsara Engine, the new comics collection by Bishakh Som. The world of comics is all about genre — superhero, sci-fi, fantasy, horror — and most of the time it's pretty easy to match any book to its proper slot. Even highbrow graphic novels tend to categorize themselves through the style of art they employ and the types of stories they tell. Not this book, though. Its images and concepts seem to come from a place all their own.

It's hard to decide whether Nicholas Gurewitch's new book is jarringly at odds with our current moment or perfectly suited to it. That's because it's a comedy about death — or Death, to be more precise, as in the Grim Reaper himself. Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or: A Little Death probably won't sell well in a nation gripped by a pandemic. But given the nature of this strange project, Gurewitch probably has a longer horizon in mind.

When you're confronted by the title of Ben Passmore's new graphic novel, it's all too easy to imagine any number of real-world problems the author might be referencing. Will Passmore spotlight the crisis around brain injuries in football, where the racial dimension (70 percent of National Football League players are black men) is as alarming as the NFL's attempts to bury inconvenient research? Maybe he'll focus on the abuses of college sports, whose institutions profit off the labor of unpaid athletes (again, often African-American) in exchange for illusory rewards.

The Janes are back — and guess what? They've grown up. Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's young adult comic about four teenagers-turned-guerilla-artists charmed critics when it debuted in 2007. It's the kind of book you can't wait to give to the teen in your life, but not before spending a couple of hours reading it yourself. Its theme is earnest, peppy and — in these trying times — something many of us struggle to keep in mind: That art has the power to transform and invigorate us, both within and in our relationships with one another.

There are a lot of different ways to adapt fiction into graphic-novel form, but there may only be one way to adapt the work of H.P. Lovecraft. At least, that's how it feels after reading Gou Tanabe's take on Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness. Tanabe's approach is so spot-on, it makes every other attempt to draw Lovecraft (of which there have been no shortage over the years) seem ill-advised.

Among all the weird quirks in the world of comics publishing, one of the weirdest is the practice of crediting writers first on book covers and title pages. Why would you give top billing to wordsmiths in a medium that's defined by graphics? Not that writers aren't essential — of course they are. Usually, though, even the most innovative and evocative comics story stands or falls with its artwork.

So there's this pale, gawky, bald guy in mirror shades running through the desert. That's the central image of Connor Willumsen's graphic novel Bradley of Him, and it's also a kind of seed. From the image of a stubborn runner in an inhospitable landscape, Willumsen has built up a hilarious and philosophically challenging meditation on individuality, capitalism, celebrity, connection — and, under it all, absurdity.

"A bloody racist." When African novelist Chinua Achebe summed up Joseph Conrad this way in 1975, it was like a bomb going off in the literary canon. Spurred by Achebe's brash assault, some critics started arguing that Conrad's works should perhaps not be read at all. These writers pointed to Conrad's imperialist tendencies, his apparent inability to see Africans as equal to Europeans and his use of the n-word.

Being a male feminist has got to be tough. No sooner do you become aware of the virulent, insidious web of oppression that's permeated society for over 2000 years than you realize that, because you happen to be a man, the most effective thing you can do to fight it is to just shut up. Or as comedian Hannah Gadsby put it in GQ's recent roundup of Voices of the New Masculinity, "How about you scale back on your confidence? How about you try not to act in every situation?

Yes, there are monkeys. There are Hollywood cowboys and antique toys in Kim Deitch's graphic novel Reincarnation Stories, as well as cartoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, a storytelling robot and a crystal ball. Frank Sinatra, D.W. Griffith, Bozo the Clown and even Jesus make appearances. These pages overflow. Even the cover pushes at boundaries, with the iconic Waldo the cat zooming out at the reader in a fiery flying car. All this might make Reincarnation Stories seem like a release, a purging, a great unmediated yowl or yawp from the depths of the artistic soul.

One of the really neat things about comic artists is their ability to make small stories into big ones. Stanislaw Lem's 1976 tale "The Seventh Voyage" is small in various ways: Besides taking place inside a cramped spaceship and featuring only one character (well, sort of), it's quite short and is told in a wry, dialed-down tone that comes close to disguising just how funny it is. In the hands of Jon J. Muth, though, every tiny development in Lem's plot becomes the catalyst for a painting showing a slightly different perspective on the action.

Even if Rusty Brown weren't the latest book from Chris Ware, whose instantly recognizable style and impeccable talent have defined the genre of art comics for some 30 years now, it would still be an event. The bricklike graphical epic documents a handful of ordinary lives in Omaha, Neb., meditating on the cosmic significance of everyday actions and the countless invisible connections linking people together.

Get ready to get woozy, get groovy and yell "Yee-ha!" September sees the arrival of a handful of audacious new graphic novels aimed at the young-adult crowd. With settings ranging from a contemporary Chinese-American community to the Old West, this trio of books tackles such unexpected topics as irritable bowel syndrome and transgender history with a combination of wit, heart and visual flair. It's a good month to be a preteen — or to read like one.

If literature is in trouble these days, it's not just because we're all on the Internet. Sure, it's hard to focus with a million tweets and popups and ads for shoes (especially ads for shoes) competing for your attention, but that's not the reason why more people don't set aside their devices and read novels for a couple of hours every night. The real problem is that we're living in an era with an unprecedented potential for catastrophe. How can you possibly be expected to wrench your attention away from, say, climate change to dwell on the torturous inner life of a single character?

There are a whole lot of webcomics out there, and a whole lot of them take the same approach to art: They don't use a lot of it. Confronted with the pressure to constantly produce new content and the ephemerality of the online medium, creators will use simple doodles or even stick figures to convey their jokes and plot devices. Ophiuchus is notable for doing the opposite. While its sci-fi plot is sparse and schematic, its art is dense, complex and sometimes overwhelming.

There are two graphic novels out this summer about Jean-Michel Basquiat, and you're definitely going to hate one of them. Which one? That's harder to say. Julian Voloj and Søren Mosdal's Basquiat and Paolo Parisi's Basquiat: A Graphic Novel couldn't be more different: Mosdal emulates the artist's agitated lines, while Parisi uses flat zones of primary color, in the style of Basquiat's mentor Andy Warhol. Aficionados will doubtless disagree about which book works — but that was probably inevitable.

Like any good story about a scientific discovery, Walter A. Brown's account of the history of lithium features plenty of improvisation, conjecture and straight-up kismet.

Unlike many such stories, though, it also features a fair share of personal bias, senseless puttering and random speculation — on part of these scientific researchers.

As NPR spends the summer reflecting on literary laughter, a funny thing is happening in popular culture. An era infamous for its uniquely counterintuitive approach to humor is coming back in style. If Seventeen magazine says so, it must be true: The '90s are with us again.

If you're reading this on your phone, drop it! (Or at least, drop it once you've finished this article.) That little screen of yours won't give you access to some of the wildest, weirdest, most innovative images and words bubbling up into the culture right now. Said miraculous content can only be found — brace yourself — on paper. To be precise, it can only be found in a flood of new periodicals by brave (or perhaps deluded) publishers who've declared war on digital monotony. Where in the world could such a quixotic movement emerge, you ask? Only in alternative comics.

"Shame is a cruel thing," writes George Takei in They Called Us Enemy, his new graphic novel about his childhood years in an American concentration camp during World War II. "It should rest on the perpetrators, but they don't carry it the way the victims do."

Let's get one thing straight: Monstress, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda's wildly successful graphical epic, is great. Yep, "great" is definitely the word to use. No, brilliant. Brilliant, that's what Monstress is ... or is it?

There are some people who can look at complex equations — this one, for example:

If you want a nice little boost to your aesthete's ego, here's a fun exercise: Pick out a seemingly forgettable artwork and give it your attention.

When young urbanites move into poor neighborhoods in search of cheap rents and local color, they often get more than they bargained for. What they don't usually get are body parts spilling over toilet bowl rims and face-eating tentacles crawling out of ventilation systems. That's the kind of visceral revenge meted out in BTTM FDRS, Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore's comedic horror comic. Daniels, who wrote BTTM FDRS, and Passmore, who illustrated it, wanted to distill the complex politics of gentrification into digestible (well, really fairly indigestible) form.

Sometimes the greatest stories are forever out of reach. Such is the case with innumerable tales of the mocambos, communities of runaway slaves that took root in the jungles of Brazil in the 1600s. And such is the case with the stories that make up Marcelo D'Salete's Angola Janga. In this massive graphic novel, D'Salete relates the history of the villages that provided havens for freedom-seeking runaways — and presented a perennial threat to the whole institution of slavery in Brazil.

If you were to make a list of professions in which women have failed to achieve a fair share of renown, one of the topmost entries would surely be architecture.

For about a year in the late '70s, Mark Alan Stamaty showed Village Voice readers how to see their city as a child would. His weekly strip "MacDoodle St." presented life in New York City as an intricate, kaleidoscopic melee of odd people and outlandish happenings. Nothing was dingy or ordinary in Stamaty's city. Every passerby was remarkable, every block animated by collisions between disparate lives. Each new street corner offered the questing mind an opportunity to tell a story.

Remember Loompanics? It was that dicey little press skulking on the cultural fringes from the 1970s through the mid-2000s.

Inés Estrada's new graphic novel is sci-fi, but a special kind of sci-fi. It's sci-fi that doesn't imagine the future so much as remind you just how strange the present is. Though it's set in 2054, Alienation sketches a world that, in most aspects, feels just a few ticks off from the present day. Its characters experience online communication, virtual reality, sexual fluidity, cultural heterogeneity and the increasingly compromised natural environment in much the same way we do now.

Drawing comics with characters of diverse races is a fraught task. From the earliest political cartoons up through last year's controversial depiction of Serena Williams by Australian artist Mark Knight, comics have a long history of exaggerating physical features in the service of racist stereotypes.

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