Once dismissed as strictly for geeks and children, graphic novels (basically any kind of book-length comic) have found new acceptance as a legitimate segment of the publishing industry. Writers, artists and publishers are discovering the medium's potential for vivid, profound storytelling and expression, and readers are eating it up. Here's a sampling of some of the best new graphic novels:

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, adapted by Peter Kuper (Crown, $18, 80 pages, ISBN 1400047951), shows how much depth good artwork can add to an already great story. Poor Gregor Samsa, who awakes one day transformed into a cockroach, becomes even more pathetic and heartwrenching as rendered by Kuper's expressionistic drawings. The graphic novel format allows Kuper to darken the mood considerably by placing emphasis on certain details, like the piggish face of Gregor's father, the flame-like hair of the obviously insane new maid, or the loathing and horror that are apparent in the shrieking mouths of every character. The result is both impressive and disturbing.

After a seven-year gap, comic book legend Neil Gaiman is resurrecting the seven Endless siblings for the 11th installment of the groundbreaking Sandman series. Launched in 1988, the series took mainstream comics out of the realm of costumed superheroes and into the previously unexplored territory of dark, gothic artwork, myth-drenched subject matter and literary style. Each of the seven tales in the latest entry, The Sandman: Endless Nights, is illustrated by a different artist. While all the stories are compelling, the disturbing tale "Despair" is particularly impressive, with Gaiman's evocative prose and Barron Storey's haunting, abstract illustrations. This collection is not to be missed.

David Lynch-style surrealism meets Ashcan-style drawings of gritty urban landscapes in Farel Dalrymple's Pop Gun War (Dark Horse, $13.95, 135 pages, ISBN 1569719349). Sinclair, a precocious little boy, pulls a pair of angel wings out of the trash and straps them on. Flying around the city, he has dreamlike encounters with a homeless artist, a deranged monk, a midget who grows to King Kong size, a talking head, a bespectacled goldfish and a scruffy devil's-advocate bully who's invisible to everyone else. The emotional expressiveness of the characters' faces and the magic realism of the story make it an oddly affecting book.

The Speed Abater (ComicsLit, $13.95, 80 pages, ISBN 1561633496) by Christophe Blain, is an adventure tale set on a creaky French battleship. Three sailors descend into the depths of the boat to escape seasickness, but soon find themselves in a hell that rivals war itself. The story is rich with metaphor, infused with humor, and beautifully illustrated with lush colors and stylish, semi-abstract drawings.

Barnum! in Secret Service to the USA (Vertigo/DC, $29.95, 128 pages, ISBN 1401200729), written by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman, is a bizarre re-imagining of the life of P.T. Barnum as America's first secret agent. After foiling an attempt on the president's life, Barnum and his team of circus freaks, including a human fly, a sword-swallower and the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, have to stop the bad guy, "mad genius" Nikola Tesla. The glossy, full-color pages feature richly detailed artwork by Niko Henrichon.

 

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