The great thing about escapism is that it can take you absolutely anywhere: from ancient Japan to the deep blue sea, from Poe's Baltimore to Dante's Inferno. And some of the best vehicles for getting there are comic books and graphic novels. "Escape and escapism, in art and literature, have received a bad name," Michael Chabon writes in his introduction to The Escapist. The range of titles due this spring should go a long way toward correcting that. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon invented a comic-book superhero called the Escapist ("Master of Elusion") so convincing that fans have been hunting for old issues featuring the "lost" hero ever since. Now Chabon presents those tales in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a collection of stories from various points in the (fictional) career of the Escapist. The best story, "The Passing of the Key," is taken directly from Chabon's novel; in both the artwork and the writing, a love for the comic book medium and the evolutions it has undergone is on full display.

Reinventing the classics
What happens when a couple of California surfer/artists decide to reinvent a classic Italian vision of the underworld? The result is Dante's Inferno, illustrated by Sandow Birk, with text adapted from Dante by Birk and Marcus Sanders. This modern-day Dante compares a flock of fleeing souls to a crowd being tear-gassed; he says things like, "Hey Virgil . . . Don't you think we'd better hide or something? I'm freaking out here thinking that those demons are gonna come after us." Just as the verse has been wonderfully roughed up for today's tastes, the illustrations echo Gustav Dore's original woodcuts transferred to a wasted urban landscape. Like the original, this version is both funny and deeply affecting.

Lovecraft  by Hans Rodionoff, Enrique Breccia and Keith Giffen, with an introduction by filmmaker John Carpenter, imagines the real life of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose diabolical tales have inspired so many films and short stories to this day. Could Lovecraft's weird stories have been more journalism than fantasy? Did he really see Arkham and feed small rodents to the Necronomicon, a frightening book hidden under his bed? The evocative painted artwork in this book could inspire a few nightmares of its own.

Brave new worlds
An entirely different mood is created in Kwaidan, by Jung and Jee-Yun. In this otherworldly tale set in 12th-century Japan, one sister betrays another over a man, setting off an elaborate scheme for vengeance that takes 200 years and involves an unlikely pair of lovers. The writing is sharp and minimalist, and each of the beautifully drawn and colored panels could be a framed piece of art fittingly, since the entire book is a meditation on beauty.

Isaac the Pirate, by Christophe Blain, runs from lighthearted to dark. It's the story of a young French artist who wants to find inspiration for his painting and become a success before he marries his fiancŽe. He's duped onto a pirate ship headed for the New World, where he paints like crazy but longs for home. Blain's art is instantly likable, with its color schemes and pointy-faced characters recalling Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline; his writing, translated from the French by Joe Johnson, is smart, lyrical and often hilarious.

Global Frequency, created and written by Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan), collects a series of stories about the secret, electronically linked network of 1,001 para-crimefighters. When something weird happens, network creator Miranda Zero summons the network members best positioned to deal with the crisis, be they engineers, chemists or philosophy students. The stories feature Ellis' trademark pop-science justifications for the supernatural, and the artwork, by a variety of contributors, is uniformly rich and splashy.

Mega manga
Form follows function in Megatokyo by Fred Gallagher and Rodney Caston. This second volume, an American take on Japanese manga that follows two American kids stranded in Tokyo, collects stories from the popular online web-comic. Publisher TOKYOPOP known mainly for Japanese manga brings out something new with @Large, by Ahmed Hoke. In a thick-lined style reminiscent of Clerks artist Jim Mahfood, Hoke introduces graffiti artist Rust and wannabe rapper True Epic in an inspired hip-hop take on manga style. True Epic can't stop talking, especially to girls ("Neva mind dat, shorty rock, lissen. I got a starring role for you in my life story," he tells one) which causes trouble when our redoubtable heroes have a run-in with a bunch of Russian mobsters. It's cartoonishness born from affection, and it's good fun.

Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the award-winning Spirited Away, is sure to be an instant classic. The four-volume set echoes the upcoming film, also directed by Miyazaki; it's the story of Sheeta, a girl who wears a magic stone necklace that allows her to fly. Though less dark and lyrical, this series is similar to Spirited Away in its visual beauty and adherence to traditional manga writing style.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.


 

 

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