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If you weren't around for the X-Files paranoia of the '90s, it's hard to describe just how pleasurable it was to indulge in the fantasy of a vast government conspiracy. These days, that sort of paranoia feels like a Trumpian red flag; but back then, it was less about actually believing in aliens and magic bees and more about the fantasy that at least someone has their hand on the wheel ... even if that someone has sinister intent. As with The Matrix, stories involving huge, organized conspiracies were oddly comforting because they validated the vague feeling that things are bad because they were designed to be bad, and that you're right to feel distrust of institutions.

That no longer feels like fun to me, in part because it's never been more clear that government institutions are often untrustworthy not because of conspiracy but incompetence. What's more, conspiracy theorists have made the jump from casually speculating about a TV show to spreading misinformation that adherents accept as fact.

But! I felt a twinge of that old familiar intrigue while reading some of this week's new comics — Stray Dogs involves a small social group awakening to sinister secrets, and Primordial is a spellbinding speculation about how the people in charge have been hiding more than you can possibly imagine.

STRAY DOGS (Trade Paperback)

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I gave the first issue of this story a glowing review back in February, and I’m pleased to report that it only improved over subsequent issues. Now the entire story is out in paperback, and do not be misled by its adorable art: Despite looking like the Disney Afternoon, it is in fact a dark, tense, and occasionally horrifying thriller. A small rescue dog named Sophie is brought to a new house, where she’s welcomed by the other dogs but is unable to settle in — some terrible memory tugs at the corners of her mind. In this world, dogs can speak to each other, but not other humans; and in an interesting twist, their memories are about as detailed as that of real-life dogs, so they are all very forgetful. What’s the true story of Sophie’s past, and what unsettling experiences lie in the dark recesses of the other dogs’ minds? Giving all of our main characters deeply unreliable memories lends an intriguing twist to this mystery, forcing our heroes to make choices based solely on half-recollections. They can’t trust themselves, so they must trust the collectively-jogged memories of the pack. The book is stressful, gripping, and despite the adorable art absolutely not for kids.
Rating: 🐕🐕🐕🐕🐕 (5/5)
Writer: Tony Fleecs. Artist: Trish Forstner. Colorist: Brad Simpson. Layouts: Tone Rodriguez. Flatter: Lauren Perry. Logo/design: Lauren Herda. Pre-press: Gabriela Downie.

PRIMORDIAL ISSUE #1

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X-Files paranoia pervades this excellent first installment in an intriguing new series. It is 1961 in an alternate timeline where both the US and USSR abandoned their space programs after the failure of animal test launches. NASA is being disassembled and sold for scrap, but tucked behind a cabinet, Doctor Donald Pembrook finds evidence that the truth about the test missions is not what the public has been led to believe. Now, he’s being dragged into what may be a conspiracy that spans the planet … and perhaps, beyond. The story’s a treat, but the real star is the artwork in this issue. The lovely high-contrast style splashes through an intriguing layout that looks, at times, more like a collage than a traditional comic book. (Fans of Dave McKean will be pleased.) As with Stray Dogs, the book raised questions of trust — in this case, in institutions that one might’ve always suspected of being flawed, but that with a little tugging on loose threads might in fact be entirely illegitimate. I’m looking forward to more, particularly given the strong choice to focus the story on a Black hero.
Rating: 🛰️🛰️🛰️🛰️🛰️ (5/5)
Writer: Jeff Lemire. Artist: Andrea Sorrentino. Coloring: Dave Stewart. Lettering & design: Steve Wands. Editor: Greg Lockard. Additional covers: Christian Ward, Dustin Nguyen, Yuko Shimizu.

MS. MARVEL STRETCHED THIN

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A completely charming graphic novel for 8- to 12-year-olds about trusting your friends to help when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Teen Kamala Khan — whose semi-secret identity is the stretchy, size-changing Ms. Marvel — is doing her best to juggle school, family, and superhero training, but despite her insistence that she’s handling it, all the responsibility is getting to be too much. She finds some solace in her just-for-fun hobby of writing Avengers fanfic, and is delighted that her stories are well-received by one online fan in particular; but not everyone on the Internet is to be trusted. There are a few panels in which the story melts away and Kamala’s friends talk in on-the-nose therapy soundbites about self-care and blaming oneself. Young readers may find that message a relief; seasoned Tumblr veterans will likely recognize self-help platitudes that we’ve heard a million times before. But maybe Kamala’s friends just really like Brené Brown. Overall, a fun adventure, and though the message is perhaps spelled out a bit more blatantly than it needs to be, it isn’t wrong.
Rating: 🤖🤖🤖🤖 (4/5)
Writer: Nadia Shammas. Illustrator: Nabi H. Ali.

ALSO: LETTERS FROM ANIMALS, BLACK NOIR, and TENTACLE HORROR


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Also promising this week is Noir is the New Black, a beautiful anthology of sixteen noir stories from Black creators. I’m delighted by the book Campaigns & Companions, a book about how animals might play Dungeons & Dragons — I’m not exactly sure who it’s for, but thumbing through it elicited a wry chuckle. Letters from Animals sure looks cute! But it’s about the various ways in which humans and animals interact, which often goes … poorly, so consider that your warning. And consider yourself also warned about Maw, an eldritch horror featuring a particularly frank look at sexual assault.

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