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Different Styles, Different Stories in April’s Graphic Novels

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Sometimes, design is everything. In SPIRAL AND OTHER STORIES (New York Review Comics, 208 pp., $24.95), by Aidan Koch, the cartoonist’s assured minimalism focuses on details — a grape, the contour of a face — that might also be a part of her book’s rich natural landscapes. The collection’s construction is appropriately elliptical: It begins with its longest and most complex story, “Spiral,” which is drawn in watercolor and pencil and written in koan-like realistic dialogue and poetic narration that bleed into each other. One beautiful sequence shows the narrator’s thoughts occupying different positions in a series of large, otherwise blank panels. “Clouds,” Koch writes at the top corner of one panel; “I miss her” in the middle. It’s subtle, but ultimately realistic.

The collection shifts away from even that qualified realism as it goes on, concluding with the ambiguous “Man Made Lake,” which starts out with a wordless series of brightly colored Matisse-like figure drawings and incorporates collaged photographs throughout. Many of these pages are purely abstract, but when Koch draws details, it’s in startlingly specific and consistent contours that give these stories a breadth of character as well as depiction: No two of her faces look alike unless she wants them to, and a stretch of grass realized as a blob of thick green paint might find itself occupied by a casually virtuosic grasshopper.

For the characters in Freddy Carrasco’s GLEEM (Drawn & Quarterly, 206 pp. $22.95), the future is a place where anything can happen. A psychedelic trip in the middle of a church service might take a bored junior parishioner under the sea and deep into space; a group of kids might befriend a robot; technology might become indistinguishable from fashion at a great party. Carrasco loves action and interaction, and his book messes with the visual progress of time, a process that cartoonists more often try to keep invisible. His stories slow down, speed up and stutter as he sees fit — deliberately disordering images of daps, drags on cigarettes and dance moves.

The coolest story in a very cool collection is probably “Swing,” a sort of punk homage to the celebrated mangaka Osamu Tezuka and “Astro Boy,” in which a group of kids must scavenge and steal all the parts to resurrect a fallen member of their crew — a high-end prototype robot. Many Western artists draw inspiration from manga, but far fewer successfully adapt the form to Western milieus. Frank Miller and Moebius are two; Carrasco is another.

Graham Chaffee, a tattoo artist and painter, returns to comics shelves every few years with a moody roman noir; the latest, LIGHT IT, SHOOT IT (Fantagraphics, 203 pp., $24.99), is worth the seven-year wait since his last book, “To Have and to Hold.” Set in the mid-1970s, the new volume follows Billy Bonney, a teenager recently released from prison after six years of confinement for starting a deadly fire in his rural California hometown. He’s not welcome there anymore, as his parents and former friends quickly make clear, so he heads south to visit his older brother in Los Angeles, where he finds himself embroiled in underhanded deals on the set of a cheap horror film.

Many monthly comics are paced like television series; “Light It, Shoot It” is paced, appropriately, like a screenplay. Chaffee’s wide strokes and careful grays delineate a generous cast of down-at-heel moguls and underemployed stars-to-be. There’s Saul, the lecherous producer; Kate, Billy’s boss, who maintains a deliberately unrequited love for Saul; Billy’s hard-boiled uncle Larry, who wanted to be a leading man but has settled into playing the heavy; and a dozen others. If this was a film, the cast would be stacked.

After a nine-year break, the cartoonists Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod have returned to finish their sci-fi comedy series Kaptara — McLeod draws and Zdarsky writes — with KAPTARA: Volume 2: Universal Truths (Image, 168 pp., $16.99). Our hero is Keith Kanga, a scientist who ends up marooned alongside his shipmates amid a collection of bizarre aliens on the distant world of Kaptara, where he falls in love with one of his new extraterrestrial acquaintances.

McLeod’s aesthetic is somewhere between the descriptions of Martian warriors in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels and a shelf full of the Masters of the Universe action figures, and Zdarsky loves deploying the tropes of 1980s cartoons and sci-fi and then upending them. There’s a villain named Skullthor; a shape-shifting wizard clad only in a loincloth and a hat named Melvon; and a Motivational Orb, a little sidekick creature who encourages Keith by displaying wonderfully obnoxious platitudes across his silvery body. (“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” he observes at one especially inopportune moment.)

If this all sounds like a bit too much, it somehow manages not to be. Glowering monsters aren’t supposed to struggle with insecurity and evil musclemen rarely have a softer side, but the rules on Kaptara are different, and the happy endings come from unexpected quarters. It looks like a nostalgia trip, and it feels like a nostalgia trip, but it’s something much better than that.

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