Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon)

CHRIS WARE is widely acknowledged to be a comics genius—a genius who depresses the hell out of people. Known for his obsessively detailed page layouts and subject matter that often emphasizes loneliness, depression, and, um, the basic meaningless of existence, his work is formally brilliant and thematically rough going.

But while sometimes just picking up an issue of his Acme Novelty Library can induce claustrophobia, his new project Building Stories opens up in a very literal way. Packaged in a box that resembles a board game, Building Stories has 14 individual components, from pamphlets to picture book-sized hardbacks to a mocked-up newspaper. (There's even a book laid out to resemble a Little Golden Book, flowered end pages and all.) Each element contains a portion of a story revolving around a Chicago apartment building and its inhabitants: There's a married couple whose happiness is stymied by their inability to simply be kind to one another; an aging landlady who's prone to drifting into remembrances of her past; and an aspiring artist with a prosthetic leg, who lives alone with her cat and trawls newspaper personal ads for company. Building Stories isn't exactly a kinder, gentler Ware—his eye for self-delusion and hypocrisy is still piercingly sharp, and no one gets a happily ever after—but it makes for an expansive reading experience heavy on the childlike pleasures of exploration and discovery.

The artist with the prosthetic leg has the most complete, well-documented storyline—she lives alone in the building until she meets a man, marries, and has a kid; then she moves to the suburbs and mourns her lost potential. But in sifting through Building Stories, the reader probably won't experience her story in such a linear manner—there's no roadmap explaining what order to read the stories in. The overall effect is a bit like sorting through someone else's memories, never sure what you're going to come across next. It's an absorbing, satisfying reading experience, one that will reward multiple rereads, thanks to the unique, unpredictable way its storylines unfold. ALISON HALLETT


The Hive by Charles Burns (Pantheon)

THERE'S A PRETTY heady mystery boiling in Charles Burns' full-color comic book trilogy, a series that started with 2010's X'ed Out and now continues with The Hive. Do I know what's going on? Eh. But letting Burns' trippy, poppy, bizarro world and its inscrutabilities wash over you is a visceral and ultimately rewarding experience, like putting Hergé's Tintin through the rotating blades of a David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs blender.

X'ed Out described art student Doug's burgeoning relationship with troubled Sarah, while a story about Doug's alter ego, Nitnit, mirrored the "real" world in a strange Naked Lunch-like landscape filled with cursing green lizard drones and a pig-faced sidekick. In The Hive, an older Doug fleshes out what might've happened with Sarah and how he got that head wound, while Nitnit gets a peculiar new job as an aide in the alternate world's hive/hospital. It's a tangle, and the thought of having to wait another two years to figure out what's going on is frustrating, but Burns' knack for combining the grotesque and uncanny with a pervading sense of unease certainly worked in his excellent Black Hole. So I'll be patient for that day when I can read all three, back-to-back in one sitting. COURTNEY FERGUSON


Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples (Image)

THIS IS HOW you do it. After years away from comics, Y: The Last Man writer Brian K. Vaughan returned with Saga, a creator-owned sci-fi fantasy. Illustrated with verve and style by the phenomenal Fiona Staples, Saga debuted with a double-sized issue for $3—and, despite comics' shortsighted trend of glutting the market with $4 comics, each subsequent issue of Saga stayed at only $3. Now its first six issues are collected in paperback for $10. When it comes to common-sense pricing and easy accessibility, you can't do much better than Saga—and more importantly, when it comes to flat-out great comics, you can't do much better than Saga, either.

Ridiculously inventive, stunning to look at, and crammed with Vaughan's big ideas, trademark cliffhangers, and addictive banter, Saga blends sci-fi and fantasy in a way few books dare to: It dumps the reader right in the midst of a war between two worlds, with one outcast couple trying to survive—and trying to protect their newborn daughter. Along the way there's a ghost nanny, an arachnid bounty hunter, a talking cat, robots doing it doggy-style, wooden spaceships, and a phenomenal breadth of drama, action, and humor. If it sounds overwhelming, it is; if it sounds incredibly exciting and weird and creepy and fun, it's those things too. Six issues in, Saga's the best book on the shelves, and if the issues so far have been any indication, it's only going to get better. ERIK HENRIKSEN


The Curse by Mike Norton (Oni Press)

THE RAMPAGING WEREPIRATE in Mike Norton's new comic book had humble beginnings. Every year in October, the worldwide comic book community gathers to overcaffeinate and hunch over white paper in a mad dash to complete a 24-page comic book in just 24 hours. The Curse is a collection of the three stories that Norton completed on 24-Hour Comics Day over the last three years—and if his hilarious finished product is any indication, Norton was a deliriously inspired mad genius during those October days.

The Curse is a madcap analog to Norton's swords-and-sandals webseries Battlepug (featuring a huge pug, natch!). All three stories are loosely connected by an adorable pug named Baxter, whose owner has been infected by a werepirate and is now sprouting eye patches and peg legs at an alarming rate. What follows is a string of exclamation-worthy story elements: pirate pug! David Bowie's oh-so-prominent crotch! The town of Nilbog! Oh my god, is that Jeffrey Combs?! I could go on exclaiming, but let's just leave off with a statement: Norton's The Curse is a funny, off-kilter, pug-filled delight. COURTNEY FERGUSON