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Interview with Garth Ennis: The Art of the War Story

Garth Ennis has been writing comics since 1989. Credits include Preacher, The Boys and Hitman, with successful runs on The Punisher and Fury for Marvel Comics. As well as his own war series War Stories, Battlefields, and Dreaming Eagles, he recently revived the classic British aviation character Johnny Red, and has produced two series of World of Tanks for Wargaming.net. Originally from Northern Ireland, Ennis now resides in New York City with his wife, Ruth.

It is an honor to have the opportunity to discuss comics with such a notable comics writer as Garth Ennis. Even the most casual of comics readers will recognize the name behind such big hit titles as Preacher and The Boys. For this conversation, we focus on the exciting Garth Ennis titles being published by Dead Reckoning, particularly the newly collected, The Tankies. Any writer will easily relate to what Ennis has to say about growing up reading war comics. As a child, the only comics he could access back in Belfast in the 1970s was 2000 AD, a sci-fi anthology, and Battle, a monthly collection of the best British war comics. It was there that he read Charley’s War, a collected comic strip about a boy soldier who enlisted in World War I just in time to fight in the Battle of the Somme. What really struck Ennis was the veracity of these works. These were real stories about real people. It stood in stark contrast to fantastic themes he was reading elsewhere. And it stuck by him. Like any good writer, he has essentially been recreating what had the most impact upon him as a child.

CHARLEY’S WAR

For those of you who are longtime fans as well as new fans emerging from The Boys on Amazon, Garth Ennis has so much to offer the reader in incisive and highly engaging work. Our talk, in fact, pretty much focused on the collected Tankies as there was already plenty there to cover.

Stiles, the man you want in a clutch.

We discuss the main character of Stiles, an awful little man who redeems himself over and over again by leading his men into combat. Stiles may not be likable or pleasant but he knows what can and can’t be done on the battlefield. Stiles is the man. He is not much to look at but, in the end, he wins you over by sheer determination and integrity. And Stiles is the glue that holds together the three stories in The Tankies.

The Korean War. We forget it at our own peril.

As we progressed, we turned our attention to the Korean War. I pointed out that this trilogy of war stories could have easily been all from World War II. Ennis said that, by the time he came around to writing a third Stiles story, it became imperative to do a whole separate story set during the Korean War, a war that has somehow receded into the shadows of history. It’s a sobering thought to think such a war is sort of lost to history given it really had all the factors that could have led to World War III.

THE TANKIES!

So, if you’ve read some Garth Ennis by now, I highly recommend his war stories and you will find a perfect selection of The Tankies, The Stringbags, and The Night Witches, over at Dead Reckoning.

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Review: THE TANKIES by Garth Ennis

Corporal Stiles, a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool.

The Tankies. writer: Garth Ennis. artist: Carlos Ezquerra. Dead Reckoning. 2021. 248pp. $24.95

All good writing provides a hook, a way into a story. War stories might seem challenging for unfamiliar readers since they might seem remote–but not if you have characters as alive as the action. Garth Ennis knows this well and it has resulted in numerous thrilling and engaging war stories. In the case of The Tankies, Ennis opens with a panorama of activity evoking the intensity and chaos during the Normandy invasion. After a good amount of blood spill, a leading figure emerges: Corporal Stiles. He’s a rough and rowdy fella who is nobody’s fool. Of course, some folks need convincing, like gunner Robinson who has Stiles pegged for a Geordie from New Castle. And what’s a “Geordie” supposed to be? Robinson is from the East End of London, a Cockney. And, as far as he’s concerned, Stiles is a lowly Geordie from the Tyneside area of North East England. Ah, the petty conflict amid the vast hell of conflict! And there you’ve got the bits and pieces that add up to a good hook!

Enter Corporal Stiles!

This collection of war stories features Stiles, who assumes the rank of sergeant throughout the rest of the book. And, of course, it’s the Tankies (nickname for the Royal Tank Regiment) that remain constant too. In the course of this series, Stiles leads his men from the battle for Normandy to the Nazi heartland; from the end of World War II to the killing fields of Korea. Did you ever read Sgt. Rock comics? Sgt. Rock was a DC Comics staple, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. I think there’s a bit of that vibe here. Of course, Ennis is well steeped in all sorts of military comics from across the pond, namely, Battle Picture Weekly and War Picture Library. This has led to many fine war comics stories from Ennis with The Tankies as a prime example.

THE TANKIES!

These stories will also appeal to you if you enjoy learning about world history. Ah, yes, through the marvel that is comics, you will quickly pick up numerous nuggets of insight all thanks to the tireless research done by Ennis. It is through the comics medium that you can absorb facts by the fistful. The Tankies provides the reader will a gripping narrative while all the time giving the reader a remarkable sense of time and place. The Brits, or “Tommy,” as the Germans mockingly called them, were at a major disadvantage with relatively inferior tanks compared to the sleek and virtually impenetrable Nazi counterparts. Within these pages, the reader will come to fully appreciate what an act of courage it was to climb into a relatively subpar Sherman or Churchill tank to do battle with such Nazi dragons as the Panther and the Tiger. It will send shivers down the spine. And it will have the reader rooting for Stiles and his men.

Boys will be boys.

A good war story, just like a good Western, is dependent upon a sense of authenticity and flesh and blood characters you can believe in. Without a doubt, Ennis delivers on both counts. Couple this stirring narrative with the exquisite art by Carlos Ezquerra (1947–2018) and you have an all-out winning combination of amazing storytelling. War comics, in general, are beloved by fans not only for their grit but just as equally for their humanity. Ezquerra literally puts a face to the action. If you are new to the genre or a seasoned aficionado, you find there is much to love in this collection. You will gain a better sense for World War II and the Korean War as well as the old adage that “war is hell.” So, take the journey with Stiles and his honorable men.

War comics at their best.

Be sure to visit Dead Reckoning, publisher of The Tankies as well as other Garth Ennis titles: The Stringbags and The Night Witches. All three of these titles add up to an outstanding showcase of war comics by Garth Ennis. As any comics and pop culture fan already knows, Garth Ennis is known for such titles as Preacher and The Boys. Well, it will delight fans of these titles to dig deeper, if they haven’t gotten the chance already, and learn the sort of history that you probably were not exposed to in high school and maybe not even in college. As for The Night Witches, this is an in-depth exploration of World War II from the Russian perspective and the view from the female Russian aviator at that! Also featuring bi-planes is the gripping story of The Stingbags. You will find out how antique planes do battle in a new generation’s war. This is war comics at its best.

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Interview with Steve Lafler: Comics, Jazz & Gender Bending

Steve Lafler’s 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona

I have interviewed Steve Lafler and I’m letting that sink in. The man is a walking encyclopedia of experiences and knowledge. I do hope we can chat again sometime. For a first interview, we covered a lot of ground. I was intrigued and delighted and I’m sure you will be too with this most provocative cartoonist.

Steve Lafler is a very cool cat–and, as promised, we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Long before Zoom interviews, I’ve been taking notes and chatting with a good many talented folks. I think we cartoonists, at least a certain subgroup, are compelled to express ourselves in numerous ways. You’ll find, for instance, that comics and journalism have been entwined since the American colonies. In Mr. Lafler’s case, he has devoted a lot of energy in two directions, the love of comics and the love of music. In my interview, I try to focus on how Lafler has lovingly included music, especially jazz, into his comics.

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is Lafler’s latest title and we enjoy talking about it. The subtext is pretty much in the forefront: our main character, Ramon, seems to be most happy when he gets to be Ramona. Or, if not most happy, then it’s definitely a sweet joy to dress up and be a woman for the night. That said, the comics pretty much speak for themselves. Lafler, himself, has provided a few clues over the years that he enjoys indulging in some gender-bending dressing up. One must follow their muse! I think, with 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona, Lafler beautifully expresses that most basic and primal human need to be true to one’s self.

Be sure to visit Steve Lafler right here.

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Review: ‘1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona’ by Steve Lafler

Steve Lafler’s 1956

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. by Steve Lafler. Cat-Head Comics. 2020, 56pp. $9.95

Adorable Ramona is sweet down to her toes. She also happens to be a guy. But, hey, no problem there say the fellas from the Garment District. Ramon, as Ramona, is just so delightful. So, no problem. Nobody’s perfect! That’s the punchline to 1959’s Some Like it Hot, by the way. The artist and writer Steve Lafler doesn’t actually use that line. In fact, his graphic novel is completely different from what goes on in the Billy Wilder classic. That said, there are definitely some similar elements at play. And perhaps the biggest theme is one recurring in just about every Lalfer book, that of music, specifically jazz, hot jazz! Since, after all, some do indeed like it hot!

Hot Jazz!

Now, Steve Lafler turns out to be a very cool cat–and we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Well, as much as I see fit to shoe-horn into this review. We’ll save some more for an interview with Steve Lafler next week. That sounds good, no? Lafler’s latest book, 1956, features a whole tableaux of goodfella types, all of them working various middle management jobs in the Garment biz, an industry with just enough of a glimmer of glamour to be suitable for these big city gentlemen. Lafler mixes the whimsical with the gritty. His style is clean lines in the service of a loose and street smart sensibility that brings to mind such greats as the Hernandez brothers and Kim Deitch. It’s quirky, idiosyncratic, and very much alt-comics. But that only makes sense since alternative comics are very much a part of Lafler’s scene. 1956 proves to be an utter delight.

Sweet Ramona!

The one thing I have come to understand from reading Lafler comics is that this is one devil-may-care dude who knows how to dish it out a la bohemian. I envy the ease with which he seems to glide through life. Maybe it takes one to know one. I know it’s not all peaches and cream. That’s part of the point. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, living by your wits, and not taking anything so seriously that it hurts– except for family. You look out for your loved ones, right? Why do I digress so? I think Lafler just puts me in a very irreverent mood.

BugHouse

Now, take some of his other work and you’ll start to see some patterns. You’ll see that jazz motif bebop around. You’ll see some hard luck hound dogs–or bugs. And you’ll definitely see a lot of that joie de vivre thing we all want some of. You find it all wrapped in a bow in Lafler’s BugHouse, albeit tinged with the harsh realities of life in the big city. Yes, these bugs play a lot of jazz but they’re also prone to drug addiction. Sad bittersweet bugs.

Death Plays a Mean Harmonica

A more recent Lafler work is Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. I find this to be quite a masterpiece incorporating a healthy dose of auto-bio mixed in with everything that Lafler has learned about the uncanny world of comics. Lafler takes his own family’s decade living abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, and turns it into the misadventures of Rex and Gertie and their two young children. Lafler let’s the good times roll with plenty of magical realism which includes a skeleton who regulars meets with Lafler while he’s asleep. They philosophize and, of course, enjoy playing music together. This serves as background for the main event. It turns out that Gertie is a secret superhero by night! Lots of fun! Bravo!

For more information, including comics, illustrations, paintings, and various merchandise, be sure to visit Steve Lafler.

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Comics Studies: Mise-en-Scene

Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE

Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.

From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain

You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.

You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.

from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found  the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

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Review: FUTURE STATE: THE NEXT BATMAN #1 by John Ridley

Batman to thugs: “Get a life!”

Future State: The Next Batman #1. DC Comics. Written by John Ridley. Art by Nick Derington. Colors by Tamra Bunvillain. January 6, 2021. $7.99

Batman, at his best, is always good as a sign of the times, right? Here is a Batman from the not-too-distant future and pointedly familiar to the immediate present. Gotham, like other big cities, has fallen under, as this comic book states, “a cloud of tyranny and disinformation.” Okay, unpack that for a little while and let me know what you get. There are so many camps people can fall into these days but, no matter the lens seen through, it seems we can all at least agree we are living through some troubled times. Note the fateful date of publication of this comic book: January 6, 2021. Coincidences can be very spooky.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

This comic book has a perfect premise: in the future, it’s legal to shoot to kill anyone wearing a mask. Are we heading towards that level of insanity? This story begs the question, Aren’t we pretty much already there? Once we have the plot in place, hey, this highly provocative Batman story has legs and can basically comment on today’s headlines, albeit in an artful indirect sort of way, thinly-veiled as it is. You don’t need to worry too much about the actual story about the mysterious Magistrate now being in charge after the “A-Day” incident. What we’re mostly after here is a mood and feeling, a certain texture. And this comic definitely has that going on.

Cities riddled with chaos from “hype soldiers.”

The Future State series won’t be around for too long so seek it out now while it’s hot. It’s an opportunity to mix things up and avoid whatever restrictions need to be respected within DC Universe canon and whatnot. There are two more stories, separate from the main story, included in this comic book and, despite the air of creative freedom, these two seem loaded down a bit from keeping track of various superhero identities and protocols. They seem just fine but may put off the more casual reader.

Wear a mask and be somebody!

All in all, it’s clear that writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) knows exactly what he’s doing and is having a good time with this alternate Batman feature. It’s a chance for Batman to punch out one of the urban offenders and yell out for him to get a life. It’s a chance to do a little calling out in general and state that our politics has gotten toxic and has resulted in toxic protest and honest rank and file police are all too often caught in the middle of it all. Is that too controversial to say out loud in public on social media? Maybe just enough–or a lot–but certainly reasonable too for a lot of folks. Ridley isn’t out to just push buttons as much as to do some intelligent, and balanced, shouting out from the rooftops in hopes that Batman has any good ideas. And that should work since he usually does.

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Drawing: Character Design for Annie

Character design for Annie.

I just thought I’d share a bit on the process of making comics and illustrations, or just art in general. Right now, what’s important is establishing a certain vibe. Annie is the studios and adventurous type. She will greet someone with a question, trying to quickly gauge a person’s goals and motivations.

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Interview: Casey Silver and the Art of Making Comic Books

Conversation with Casey Silver

Casey Silver is an astute member of the comics industry. He is in a very good place these days with his coloring and lettering work gracing the pages of such notable titles as the limited series, Gunning For Hits and the ongoing series Rat Queens, both from Image Comics.

The now famous sold-out issue of RAT QUEENS #22.

In this conversation, we talk about comic book shops, working in the comics industry, and being co-owner of the comic book company, 80 Percent Studios, based here in Seattle. Casey managed the downtown Zanadu comics shop and we would often chat a bit about comics when I would stop by. Zanadu is now gone and part of history but it’s not forgotten.

Lately, Casey is knocking it out of the park. Fortunate to team up with the artist Moritat, Casey’s career has taken off with his first working on Gunning For Hits and then following Moritat on to the next project, a run at Rat Queens. Moritat is a true maverick of an artist. Look him up and you’ll find exceptional work. When the comics cognescenti learned that Moritat was jumping on board to Rat Queens, that opening issue immediately sold out. So, yeah, all of this is a very big deal for Casey and for those who follow comics closely.

Chickaloonies, by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, 80 Percent Studios.

The life of a freelance creative, whatever the medium, has its bumps in the road. There are no guarantees. You are always scrambling for gigs. Casey has a confident way about him that should inspire many interested in entering the world of comics. The big takeaway from this interview is that Casey is a great creative in the biz with a lot of insight to share. I find the Zoom video interview format to be very fascinating–and revealing for both the guest and the host. You are juggling far more information than just a text-centric interview, whether by email or phone. It’s not just the written or verbal content we’re dealing with. It’s not totally an in-person interview either and, at the same time, it’s more. It’s a myriad of visual and body language elements. One way or another, a video interview manages to cut through more than you might ever expect. But if you’re in the moment and sincere, then things tend to work out just fine. Here is another example of just that! We end up covering some good shop talk and, overall, as I say, it’s a great conversation, whatever your interest.

Visit the GUNNING FOR HITS site here. And keep up with RAT QUEENS right here.

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Review: GUNNING FOR HITS

GUNNING FOR HITS

Gunning For Hits. writer Jeff Rougvie. artist Moritat. color/lettering Casey Silver. Image Comics. Portland. 2019. Collected trade, $16.99.

David Bowie has been the subject of a number of comics over the years but nothing quite like this. The character of Brain Slade is the thinly-veiled stand-in for Bowie in this unusual mashup/satire of the music industry and crime fiction.  The creative team behind this book is as compelling as this quirky thriller. Writer/music producer Jeff Rougvie is brash and larger-than-life. Artist Moritat seems to strike a similar pose. And Casey Silver, in charge of lettering and coloring, rounds out the bad boy trio. Just the right guys for the job. As I learned from Silver, during an interview, Moritat fits the bill as the mysterious dark figure, the guy at the bar creating intricate drawings of fire-breathing dragons on a cocktail napkin. As for Rougvie, this guy actually lived the whole rock star lifestyle and has survived to turn it into comics. It was Rougvie who created a significant Bowie CD box set. In fact, it was Rougvie who invented the whole CD box set format to begin with. So, this book’s authentic vibe is well-earned.

The tangled web of power and fame.

It is no spoiler here to say that the book involves a lot of guns and a lot of shooting. The premise is that music producer Martin Mills is leading a double life that gets in the way when he’s put in charge of seeing his favorite rock legend, Brian Slade (the fictional stand-in for David Bowie), make a comeback. Set in the 1980s New York City music scene, the gritty world of show business meets the crime underworld when Mills must confront his checkered past. Caught in the crosshairs is Brian Slade. As push comes to shove, it seems that a dead Slade might be more valuable to all concerned than a live Slade. The drama involved is something Bowie would have approved of. This is a wonderful fly-on-the-wall look at the tangled web of power and fame. The music industry and the crime world have plenty of that. If you’re looking for something completely different, then a crime thriller starring David Bowie should satisfy you. Well, it’s not exactly David Bowie, but close enough.

Power chords and power plays.

So, tough guy narrative meets tough guy artwork. Moritat delivers with gestural and pared-down work that evokes urgency and overall chaotic/neurotic energy. This is a fun and rollicking book full of power chords and power plays.

Be sure to visit the GUNNING FOR HITS site right here.

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Comics Grinder Holiday Gift Guide 2020: Another Top Ten List ❤️

Something as good as a stocking full of cash?

Here are more suggestions for you to consider during this holiday season. See what you think of this next Top Ten List. What do you want most? Maybe stuff a stocking with some cash and glitter? That is hard to beat but let’s see. Look, I’m trying to help. Here, let’s make it an even dozen…

MAX & THE MIDKNIGHTS

A book that is bound to be welcomed by young readers. Filled with jokes, action, and just the right mix of middle school angst, Lincoln Peirce strikes another home run with his latest kid epic. Published by Penguin Random House.

BENEATH THE MOON

A gorgeously illustrated collection of some of the world’s most beloved fairy tales, fables and myths. Yoshi Yoshitani presented time-honored classic with a sly contemporary vibe. Published by Penguin Random House.

SONG OF THE COURT

Here is an appealing book for cat lovers, young readers, and anyone who appreciates an energetic and polished children’s book in a graphic novel format. By Katy Farina, known for creating the New York Times bestselling Baby-sitter’s Club Little Sisters series. Published by Sterling Children’s Books.

THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF BASKETBALL

Fred Van Lente has been attached to some of the most significant educational graphic novels and he brings his A-game to this detailed tribute to basketball. Published by Penguin Random House.

DRAWING FIRE

Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) is one of the all-time great political cartoonists we’ve ever had, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his editorial cartoons. Here, collected in one book, is a treasure trove of collected works and substantial essays reviewing Mauldin’s career beginning with his “Willie and Joe” cartoons from World War II. Published by Pritzker Military Museum & Library.

GREAT NAVAL BATTLES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

In the history of civilizations, sea power has always played a preponderant role. This symbol of a nation’s scientific and military genius has very often been the deciding factor during major conflicts, putting the names of several clashes down into legend. With this collection, Jean-Yves Delitte and Giuseppe Baiguera plunge you into the heart of three of the twentieth century’s greatest naval battles. The comics narratives exploring Tsushima (1905), Jutland (1916), and Midway (1941) bring you right up to the action. Published by Dead Reckoning.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN

This is the riveting true life story of Francisco Boix, a Spanish press photographer and communist who fled to France at the beginning of World War II. Boix ended up imprisoned at the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp. But, through some luck and skill, Boix found a way to not only survive but to expose Nazi war crimes. Another stellar title published by Dead Reckoning.

NAUTRALIST

An ambitious graphic novel adaption of Edward O. Wilson’s classic. Keeping to a steady pace, any fan of the original will be satisfied. For new readers, this is an excellent gateway to the life and times of one of the world’s preeminent biologists and to nature itself. Published by Island Press.

GUANTANAMO VOICES

Journalist Sarah Mirk and her team of diverse, talented graphic novel artists tell the stories of ten people whose lives have been shaped and affected by the prison, including former prisoners, lawyers, social workers, and service members.. Published by Abrams.

BAD ISLAND

Cult artist and longtime Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood embarks  upon an eerie journey in his first foray into comics with this wordless graphic novel. Published by W.W. Norton & Company.

PLEASE DON’T STEP ON MY JNCO JEANS

Here’s a neat little stocking stuffer: a gem of self-loathing slice-of-life comic strips from indie cartoonist Noah Van Sciver. Published by Fantagraphics.

CONDITIONS ON THE GROUND

Kevin Hooyman’s masterwork is a perfect gift for anyone who enjoys an intriguing read. Published by Floating World Comics.

Tick Tock! You’re Running Out of Time!

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