Call us morbid or maybe it's just that Halloween is lurking around the corner. Whatever the reason, many of our favorite graphic novels this fall are a bit on the grim side. Witches and warlocks, dark magic, violence behind bars, oppressive regimes and a journey into purgatory: that's just a partial list of the topics addressed in vastly different ways in the new crop of comic books. Even the more playful, kid-friendly choices have their spooky elements. So lock the doors, check the windows and hunker down in a safe place with some of these frighteningly good graphic novels. The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft is a beautiful collection of illustrated short horror stories. It starts off strong with artist Tony Millionaire's adaptation of the "double, double toil and trouble witches' brew scene from Shakespeare's MacBeth ("This is his first work for Dark Horse, quips the Bard's author bio). Other pieces include a brief but typically gorgeous Hellboy episode from Mike Mignola; a story by Scott Morse (of Oni Press' Soulwind) with his trademark ultra-flat art that resembles delicately layered Asian wallpaper; and "Unfamiliar, a funny/scary tale of some dogs and a cat who save the world from witchcraft, written by the great Evan Dorkin (Milk and Cheese, on Slave Labor Graphics) and illustrated with splashy, vivid abandon by Jill Thompson. The collection includes several other creepy tales and an interview with Phyllis Curott, self-styled high priestess, by editor Scott Allie.
A LIFE IN PICTURES
More grim than scary is Persepolis 2, Marjane Satrapi's impressive follow-up to her popular and highly acclaimed memoir-as-graphic-novel, Persepolis (2003). Volume two starts as Marjane, age 14, leaves Iran for high school in Vienna. Homesick, she returns four years later but finds life in Tehran not much easier. The regime is repressive and the social culture incredibly chauvinistic; having experienced other possibilities, Marjane finds she can't really put up with it and instead faces the prospect of leaving her homeland behind. Her deceptively simple, blockish, black-and-white line drawings, beyond just being cute, possess a stark elegance and subtle flourishes that echo traditional Persian art and sculpture. The writing is direct and powerful, and the dual stories of a country in crisis and a girl coming of age are tremendously affecting.
100 Bullets: Samurai, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, is Book 7 in one of the most intriguing and powerfully written comics series around. It's extremely dark material, both in terms of artwork almost all the scenes take place at night, with a moody, muted color palette and content. The premise is this: a mysterious stranger who knows about something terrible that once happened to you gives you an untraceable gun and 100 bullets and promises you vengeance without consequence. Noth-ing, of course, is that simple. In this volume, one set of the 100 bullets is supposed to be used on the shooter himself clearly problematic. The bulk of the story takes place in prison and is rich with dead-on dialogue and complex characters; even the "bad guys have secrets, depth and nuanced personalities. If the storyline is hard to pick up here in the middle, don't worry: you'll want to seek out the first six volumes as soon as you've read this one.
It's hard to exaggerate the achievement that is Gary Panter's Jimbo in Purgatory. The large-format, pink-and-gold hardcover book is decadence itself, as beautiful to look at as an illuminated manuscript in a museum case. A brilliant reimagining of the Book of Purgatory from Dante's Divine Comedy, it's packed with literary references and surreal poetry. The richly detailed drawings and lyrical text demand multiple readings.
THIS ONE'S FOR THE GIRLS
Not all of this season's top new books take such a serious tone. For lighthearted fun, there's the increasingly popular genre called shojo manga (which translates as "girl comics"), a subcategory of manga that's as likely to appeal to teenage girls as to the typical comic-book audience of young boys. Shojo typically involves mischievous, large-eyed school kids learning important lessons about human relationships and growing up but it's a lot more fun than that sounds. One good example is the new Imadoki!: Dandelion, by renowned Japanese shojo artist Yu Watase. Volume 1 of Imadoki ("Nowadays") follows the spirited Tanpopo Yamakazi, a new girl at the elite Meio School, who meets a cute boy tending a garden; in an effort to make friends, she organizes a gardening committee, and chaos ensues.
Combining the appeal of shojo manga with gothic style and a rock 'n' roll heart, Princess Ai features characters created by Ai Yazawa, the artist behind the popular Paradise Kiss. Its real claim to fame is being based on the real-life Tokyo adventures of singer Courtney Love (the punk-rock/babydoll heroine even has a heart-shaped box). With writing by DJ Milky, the book is gorgeous to look at and loads of fun.
COMICS FANS SPEAK OUT
If you're addicted to comic books, especially as an adult, it's always comforting to hear from others who aren't afraid to confess their affection for the medium. This is particularly true when those other adults happen to be respectable literary figures. In Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!, writers including Jonathan Lethem, Greil Marcus, Glen David Gold, Luc Sante, Geoff Dyer and Aimee Bender discuss what comics have meant to them in their development as writers and as people. It's an entertaining, educational read even if you're not obsessed with graphic novels (or still don't want to admit it).
Becky Ohlsen has been a comics geek since she plundered her brother's X-Men collection at age seven.