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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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There’s a reason comics gained their first foothold into literary respectability through graphic memoirs. While anything not about anthropomorphic animals or crime-fighters in spandex might seem respectable by contrast, memoir is an especially apt genre for an image-driven form because words can’t always convey the ambiguous complexities of personal experience. Sometimes they’re just too blunt a tool. Sometimes it’s more accurate to evoke undefinable nuances rather than declare steadfast facts.

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Travis Dandro’s King of King Court is an excellent reminder of how evocatively effective comics are in the hands of a skilled memoirist. Because Dandro is focused on moments of his childhood and adolescence, his artistic style shapes that content through a cartoon lens. His figures are reminiscent of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes—and there’s even a little Charles Schultz’s Peanuts in there too. The key is simplicity. Dandro’s cartoon self has empty circles for eyes, a half-circle for a nose, triangle spikes for hair, and often no mouth at all. The style works in part because it indirectly implies that childhood is simple too. This should be a world free of the difficult details of adulthood, like drug addiction, physical abuse, armed robbery, and suicide—things that partially define Travis’s paradoxically cartoon life.

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I say partially because, despite the central presence of an abusive father figure, Dandro focuses at least as much on the seemingly inconsequential minutia of his child self’s wandering attention. Yes, “Dad Dave” is shooting up in the kitchen pantry, but look how super cool the ants are climbing on that bottle cap in in the front yard. The fact that the cap came from a Miller Lite bottle doesn’t matter to Travis, but Dandro the memoirist is keenly aware, selecting that detail from all possible details to suggest (without directly stating) that his younger self was unaware of the some of the most troubling details surrounding him. Or maybe young Travis was aware at some level and was diving into childish play to escape. If Dandro were a prose memoirist, he might have to take a stance on that question and eliminate the ambiguity. But as a graphic memoirist, Dandro can instead leave his viewers to interpret his images as they like.

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The cover image of Travis walking past a towering tree echoes an interior page, only without the graffiti gouged into the bark—including the word “FUCK” which is both literally and metaphorically over his head. Dandro is artful with his visual metaphors throughout. When the teenaged Travis is sitting angrily brooding about Dave returning after eight years in prison, an apple falls and bounces not far from the backyard tree in front of him. This is after Dandro has already revealed that his younger self was a jerk in high school, drawing a giant penis on a chalk board to prank a teacher. When the temporarily reformed Dave starts using again, a minutely drawn hornet nest grows panel-by-panel on the eaves of the house. During an attempted family beach vacation, a storm tears Travis’ umbrella from his hands and tosses it into the trees, where it is shown mangled pages later.

While the apple, nest, and umbrella resonate metaphorically, each is also part of the Travis’ real world, giving them double meanings. Dandro is equally apt at exploring the imaginary wanderings of Travis’s mind too. He dreams of floating into the sky on the blow-up Bozo punching bag Dave gave him. Later the same toy deflates from a wasp sting, leaving Travis to drown in a flooded landscape. After Travis’s mother has moved the family to another town because Dave was arrested for trying to break into their house, Travis wakes to find Dave covering his mouth and pulling him from his bed. After a ride in a car trunk, Travis stands before a lake as Dave places a knife against his throat—and then severs his neck. Travis jolts awake in his bed—the first indication that it was a dream.

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Dave’s fantasy life is worse. Early we witness his hallucination of an unidentified character committing suicide with a rifle and following Dave around zombie-like. Later Dave dreams of being buried alive, and once, when presumably high on heroine, he begs Travis to help him defend the house from an attacking horde of undead. Dandro reveals late in the memoir that the suicide was Dave’s brother and that guilt is driving his addiction.  It’s a central and humanizing detail that turns Dave from a caricature—Dave’s moustache is a rectangle and his eyes permanently attached sunglasses—to a three-dimensional character deserving of sympathy. Though not too much sympathy, since he remains a verbally and physically abusive bully, repeatedly beating Travis, his brothers, and his mother.

Though committed to the cartoon style, Dandro occasionally breaks form to provide a suddenly naturalistically detailed and proportioned image. It happens most often around animals, with a close-up of a bird or fish or flea or wasp, each carefully contrasting the impossibly blocky anatomy of the human characters. The effect reinforces Travis’ escape from reality, as though the natural world were wholly unrelated to his family life. Dandro breaks this pattern only once: a full-page close-up of the precisely wrought lines of Dave’s muscular back as he’s lifting weights in the basement. Rather than escape, here the realistic penwork reveals the depth of the threat.

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Though Dandro’s cartoons, like cartoons generally, are composed of simplified shapes with little three-dimensional crosshatching, his style is also atypically dense. Most pages are filled with meticulous scribbles of shadow. Dandro’s layouts further intensify that density by eliminating gutters and drawing panel images inside interlocking frames that unify each page as a single unit. These choices also resonate at a metafictional level once the teenaged Travis becomes a cartoonist within the memoir. Dandro plays a visual game by redrawing his younger self’s portrait of his mother in a style only mildly more cartoonish than the style that is the baseline reality of the story. Accepting a compliment about the realistic vein in the penis he drew on the chalkboard, Travis says, “Yes, it’s the little details that make a drawing come to life.”

It’s also the little details—whether drawn, stated, undrawn, or unstated—that make Dandro’s memoir come to life.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

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Three things I strongly suspect are true about graphic novelist James Sturm:

1) he is or has been married,

2) he has kids,

3) he doesn’t have a dog head.

Of the three, I’m least certain of the last. I also really really hope he didn’t vote for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton in 2016, but honestly I have no idea.

The question is oddly central to Off Season, a graphic novel set in the aftermath of the presidential election, which both frames and represents the marital turmoil of the novel’s plot. From the opening panel of a turn-right traffic arrow painted on black asphalt below the caption-boxed chapter title “Stronger Together,” national politics infuse the story. Like the visual echo of the arrow embedded in the “H” of the Hillary yard sign seen in the next panel, the unglossed slogan references not only the failed Clinton campaign but also the narrator’s failing marriage, ironically encapsulating his own most salient feature: he needs his family to be together in order to be the strongest (or even a tolerable) version of himself.

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The sixteen chapters range between three to fifteen two-panel pages, arranged left-to-right from an atypically short spine—the equivalent of “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation. It may or may not be coincidental that Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons shares the same format since Barry’s memoir was originally published online as an episodic series at Slate in the late 90s, ending with the traumatic impact of Gore’s ambiguous loss to Bush in the wake of the Florida recount. Slate featured Sturm’s episodic chapters beginning in early October 2016—and so just before Clinton’s unexpected loss.

The seventh chapter (the sixth online) was published on the day of the election, the same day as within the story, too. For the book, the chapter title “Is It Really Over?” becomes the more definitive “It’s Not Over”—though the narrator’s stumbling marriage is identical. The ninth and final online installment is the most revised in book form, as the narrator’s breakdown peaks with his (undrawn) vandalism of a construction site after the repeatedly late check from his conman of a boss bounces, resulting in his daughter getting thrown out of her Judo class and an angry text from his not-quite-yet-ex-wife. It was a pretty bleak moment to end the original series, since the cop car in his rearview mirror is there to arrest him—except in the graphic novel, we learn later that he was only pulled over for texting while driving. While the new chapters are not as up-beat as the title of the next, “Working Through It,” might suggest, his personal campaign slogan “It’s Not Over” applies.

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Sturm draws his story in a largely realistic style, with simple black lines filled with a gray-wash of details that give events a real-world solidity. Except for one intentionally glaring inconsistency: all of these humanly proportioned people have dog heads. The choice is a familiar one, but unlike, say, in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Sturm’s characters are visually fuller, with even their dog facial features sometimes drawn with naturalistic contours, making them teeter between actual dogs and Snoopy-esque cartoons. The effect is intriguingly odd, especially when characters are grounded in utterly human actions—how the narrator’s daughter mumbles, “I’m not tired” as she sags on her father’s shoulder on the way upstairs, or the wife’s later, tear-clenched upset over her in-laws exchanging the gag Christmas present of a “Make American Great Again” cap. The dog-faced Trump is a bit much though:

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The effect is most overt when Sturm draws his couple’s first romantic episode while wearing paper

mâché animal heads from a summer theater production. He echoes that meta-fictional gesture in some of my other favorite moments of the novel—how the close-up of a painting purchased at a beach town tourist gallery emphasizes a general sameness in style as the larger, partially cartoon world, while also literally drawing attention to the artifice of image as a set of lines and shapes that distort and yet recognizably represent the world. That image-within-an image repeats the fake-animal-head-within-a-fake-animal-head relationship, giving the world of Off Season a similarly almost-but-not-quiet off-ness as a story drawn from inside our actual world—one in which Donald Trump is president too, but doesn’t have dog-like facial features.

Despite its fragmented, episodic structure, the novel is artfully plotted, and so if you dislike spoilers, stop reading now—but I need to address the final chapter, one of the most intriguing of the entire novel. First, it’s brilliant in its aggressive division of visual and textual narration. The title, “Watching a cat cough up a hairball during Suzie’s piano lesson,” subtly re-establishes a conflict-free return to the family structure in which the narrator is once again ferrying children to after-school events—a fact that alone gives the novel closure. Visually, the chapter consists entirely of twenty-seven panels of a cat, presumably the piano teacher’s, in the corner of a room, sometimes vomiting, but mostly just hanging out. The text, which seems to run on an intriguingly unrelated yet parallel track, reveals that the narrator in fact has gone into therapy as his wife demanded and for the first time is dealing with his repressed anger at her for an affair she had when they were newly married but that she only confessed during her severe post-partum depression so that he had no choice but to say he forgave her. The incident is the first and only moment in the novel in which the wife is culpable, a key reversal of the marital power dynamic. Coupled with the ingeniously peculiar division of image narration and the implied improvement in their relations, the chapter would be my favorite of the novel–until the final four panels in which their recovery is revealed to be the result of their microdosig LSD.

That comical non-sequitur could be a perfectly cute punchline to a shorter and far less ambitious story peopled by two-dimensional characters instead of the complex, albeit dog-headed ones Sturm has spent the rest of the novel developing so convincingly. I felt betrayed. Fortunately, four panels can’t erase the pleasure of the two hundred and twenty-some that precede them. Off Season is an emotionally insightful reflection on the challenges of marriage and parenthood, as paralleled and reflected by the turmoil of contemporary politics.

I met Sturm at the AWP conference last spring, and so I can now confirm: his head appears fully human. He also mentioned that he’s a big fan of the Ash Can School, an early twentieth century art movement that focused on working class New York for its subject matter. Strum has combined that aesthetic with his own oddly naturalistic style of cartooning to produce what I can’t resist calling Ash Can Cartoons. His blue collar protagonist and presidential backdrop add to the effect, since the original school was politically driven too. They just didn’t draw dog heads.

 

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

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Reading the English translation of Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work makes me wish I could read it again in its original French—not for any imagined flaw in its translators’ fluid prose, but the opposite: I can’t imagine this intensely personal memoir existing in any different form.

No translation is simple. Every language has not only its own sounds, but no two words share exactly the same set of connotations either, even when their dictionary definitions appear identical. Sometimes differences are overt, as when Delporte declares: “the grammar I was taught still hurts,” she must add an explanation in an asterisked note at the bottom of the page: “In French, the masculine takes precedence.” It would be a fitting subtitle for her memoir.

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Graphic works add another level of complexity to language because a choice of font—something readers of prose-only novels hardly register—is a visual element embedded into each page. Translating the effects of graphic design is even more complicated when the words aren’t contained by talk balloons and caption boxes of conventional comics. Delporte’s words are all unframed. Her script winds around and between and sometimes overtop her drawings in similarly penciled lines, dissolving the differences between handwriting and drawing style, diary and sketchbook. Few comics are composed of more thoroughly integrated image-texts.

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Whether composing letters or images, all of Delporte’s lines are evocative lines, each color carefully chosen. When she depicts herself having sex with a lover in an attempt to become pregnant, her drawn self exists only in blue pencil and he all in orange, their lines almost but not quite touching. When she lists the promises she wishes he had said to her afterwards, most expectant mothers would probably like to hear the three she scripts in blue: I’ll take care of her, change the diapers, nurse her. But Delporte pencils the most important unsaid assurance in orange: “You’ll be able to draw.”

Delporte is a female artist documenting her private and professional search for her own place in a male-dominated field and world. The search is life-long and takes her in a non-linear path around Europe and North America and deep into her own past. She fills her story with personal reproductions of works by female artists, each linked to critical moments in her own life. When she imagines having to raise a child on her own, she sketches a Mary Cassatt painting of a mother holding a child, giving the image a double meaning since it both represents her possible self and the artistic lineage she is constructing.Related imageDelporte travels to Finland to write about Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, cartoon trolls who are “happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled.” That description is Tove’s, but for Delporte it encapsulates the role of women. She claims she’d “give almost anything to be like” the Moomins, but her memoir is her struggle to escape that past—including the darkest moments of her childhood. She received her “first lesson in sex” by a slightly older cousin, but when she later dreams about the trauma, it’s not the event but how the adults in her family never responded, never spoke about it.  Now she looks at her family tree and wonders: “which of these women were raped?”

That central trauma permeates but does not define Delporte’s work. The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories. When she grows frustrated with writing and drawing, she turns to ceramics for something more tangible. The pages of her memoir have a similarly tangible aesthetic. The ghostly edges of transparent tape seem to hold the scissors-cut images in place. Some words are written on strips of paper, their near-whiteness almost but not quite matching the white of the book’s actual paper. Several pages are reproductions of her sketchbooks, their bent corners creating a book-within-a-book illusion.

Some of her images are precisely finished, while other seem gestural and preliminary, a face left blank within the frame of a head. That incompleteness is essential to the larger project, as when she describes herself “struggling to draw” her own vagina because she “lived so long without an image of one.” She sketches the character Rey from Star Wars for the same reason, delighted to see “a self-sufficient woman, on the screen.” When she was growing up, she only had Wynona Ryder playing Jo in Little Women, a character who marries an older, more accomplished man—the plot closure Delporte now rejects.

She also varies her layout style, creating a cramped intensity for pages relating her physical travels, but rendering certain memories and dreams more sparsely.  Her hand-written script grows in size too, with only a few words filling an entire page, often juxtaposed against a single image on the facing page. The switching styles give the memoir a visual rhythm, while also accenting the literally larger-than-real-life content. Delporte dreams of magically appearing babies, and strange bristles growing from her legs, and stabbing a polar bear in the heart to save her own life—each a bright fragment in the not-yet-complete puzzle of her search.

It’s fitting that this French memoir ends with a dream sequence situated around an untranslated term. A community of female poets live in a “béguinage,” a building complex for religious lay women who don’t take the vows of nuns. Though Delporte earlier glossed the male-dominance of French grammar for English-only readers such as myself, here she appropriately leaves us to find a dictionary ourselves. But this utopian vision, where women work together making art and raising children who venture out into the world when ready, ends on a far more ambiguous note—a page seemingly torn from Delporte’s sketchbook diary as she draws herself in bed while her lover sleeps downstairs because they’re just fought. She writes: “I’m scared to death I’m pregnant.”

That poignantly open-ended conclusion seems the best closure possible for a memoirist still struggling to make her life work.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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I don’t speak French and have never even visited Quebec, so my googled translation of plotte as “vagina” and “slut” likely misses some cultural connotations. Julie Doucet’s longer and better explanation includes a map and diagram and appears in one of the first issues of her ground-breaking 90s comic Dirty Plotte—or rather her bandes dessinées, literally “drawn strips,” the French term and tradition Doucet was responding to.

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I have never read Doucet in her original format, but my bookshelf includes My Most Secret Desire (2006) and My New York Diary (2013), two reprint collections of roughly 100 pages each. Happily, her original publisher Drawn & Quarterly released a complete collection, Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet, a massive anthology spanning over 600 pages. It amasses not only all twelve, twentysomething-page issues of the original 1990-1998 series, including full-color front and back covers, but also roughly two hundred pages of additional work produced during the same period. The combination is a startling body of work that further deepens Doucet’s place in the comics cannon.

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Dirty Plotte began as a late 80s series of two-page mini-comics, which, if we believe the cover price, Doucet sold for only a quarter. Most of them appear within the pages of the expanded series, one of the first publications launched by Drawn & Quarterly—with, according to the second issue, the grant support of the Canadian government’s ministry of cultural affairs. That fact is a stark contrast to the roughly simultaneous controversy in the U.S. over the National Endowment of the Art’s funding of Piss Christ (1987), with conservative Republicans attempting to eliminate the NEA entirely in 1990. I can only imagine how they would have responded to Doucet’s comic about eating the decapitated and butchered body of Christ on her dining room table or the one about a serial killer murdering a child (a young Doucet?) in a park and feeding the corpse to his trusty dog.

I know Doucet primarily as a memoirist whose diary-like subjects are the recent events of her waking life as well as the surreal happenings of her sleeping subconscious. Both paint a vivid and now expanded self-portrait. The dream Doucet eats a butter-oozing croissant protruding from a man’s briefs; watches her comics role model Chester Brown swim with killer sharks; is stabbed in the eye with a drug-filled syringe; receives the gift of a cut-off penis from a friend (it may or may not grow back); masturbates with homemade cookies in a spaceship; wanders lost in the underground tunnels of New York; has sex with her mirror self; and witnesses a prostitute strip off her clothes and then her skin to reveal a dog who strips down further to a snake before giving a blowjob.

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Though many of her other stories are equally surreal, Doucet is careful to distinguish dream content, citing a “true dream” or a “story based on a long time dream” or dating both the dream and the comic separately (“Dreamt July 1995 – drawn January 1996”). The distance of even a few months makes the work memoir not diary, but the effect is still diary-like as Doucet documents the disturbed and disturbing events of her subconscious life. She also nods at early 20th century comics pioneer Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland strips, each of which ends with the child protagonist waking in bed—a pose the cartoon Doucet often repeats.

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Her conscious world, however, isn’t clearly divided from her dream life. Many of the dreams begin ambiguously, implying real-world events that then devolve uncomfortably. Her non-dreamt content is infused with many dream-like qualities too. After declaring, “I’m in my bed! It was only a dream …,” the cartoon Doucet is surrounded by the objects of her apartment literally muttering murderous threats. Her own cats can not only talk, but lead their own anthropomorphic adventures continued across multiple issues. Other stories begin realistically and then turn not to dreams but fantastical comedy—as when she visits an old friend to find that he has a dog so big that your voice will echo if you shout down its penis. Still others are dream-like wish-fulfilments, as when she murders her annoying roommate or imagines multiple installments of “If I Was a Man” (it turns out a penis can make a lovely flower vase).

Doucet’s creative id, whether awake or asleep, knows few boundaries—or rather seeks out boundaries to challenge. I’m not sure whether I’m more uncomfortable looking at Doucet’s self-portraits covered in self-mutilating razor wounds or when she more graphically mutilates a male volunteer’s body. She is also “dirty” in both senses, depicting herself as a nose-picking slob living in surreal squalor and as an insatiable masturbator craving elephant trunk. Like her contemporary, Fiona Smyth, there is a fair amount of “joyous sucking” in these pages—but Doucet’s sexual universe is overall much darker. While the dreams and waking fantasies disturb, it’s her less surreal, less sensationalistic memoirs that most upset.

The first installment of what she would later collect as “My New York Diary” begins in Dirty Plotte No. 7. The ten pages, the longest sequence yet, recounts her seventeen-year-old self foolishly falling in with a group of men who variously coerce her into kissing and eventually having sex. It’s not presented as a rape scene, but the cartoon Julie’s “Oh, well” thought bubble is hardly joyous even if she does leave the apartment pleased with her sudden adulthood. As one of Doucet readers writes generally of the series: “Julie, it’s really not very funny, is it?”

Yet Doucet’s visual style is comical. These are cartoons in the exaggerated sense, impossible anatomy  that evokes the human proportions it warps. The heads of Doucet figures are roughly 1/5th their height, so roughly double the size of human heads. They pose and move in clunky, almost Peanuts-esque shapes. The artistic choice often reduces the level of discomfort in each scene. A more naturalistically drawn seventeen-year-old Doucet pinned on a mattress under a gray-bearded man sounds like an image more horribly at home in a Phoebe Gloeckner collection. Doucet instead allows her reader and perhaps herself off the hook by refiguring her dreams and memories into unrealistic realities.

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The collection is divided into two, oddly distinct books, each with its own title page and numbering.  The first is the complete Dirty Plotte series. But rather than interspersing Doucet’s non-Plotte material between issues, the editors rewind to the late 80s and begin the timeline over with literally “Everything Else.” Everything includes almost a dozen short essays about and interviews with Doucet by an array of comics aficionados: Dan Nadel, Diane Noomin, Chris Oliveros, Adrian Tomine, Jami Attenberg, J.C. Menu, Andrew Dagilis, John Porcellino, Geneviève Castrée, Laura Park, Martine Delvaux, and Christian Gasser. All but the last were published during Doucet’s comics career, which Gasser’s interview looks back over from the vantage of 2017.

To be clear, the “Complete” in the collection’s title refers only to Dirty Plotte and similar work she produced at roughly the same time. So it does not include her 365 Days: A Diary (2008) or Carpet Sweeper Tales (2016), works that break from her 90s style and content—though not necessarily the comics form, despite claims that Doucet left comics entirely after 1999. It does, however, include the forty-one-page episodes of “The Madam Paul Affair,” her first major work after ending Dirty Plotte.

Wandering back through the 90s again, it’s often unclear why certain material was included in Dirty Plotte and other wasn’t. There are more dreams (pregnancy), new cat adventures (now in a Western setting), and “If I Was a Man” installments, and works like “Heavy Flow” and “Janet and the Tampons” feel like long-lost sisters. But some of the gutter shapes are more playful—several waves and squiggles stand out—and an occasional page like “The Kiss,” an apparent homage to Klimt, do seem wonderfully out-of-place. Perhaps if Doucet had felt freer to experiment in these ways she might not have left comics at all?

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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