In the Shadow of No Towers
by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)

For graphic novel fetishists who are in love with the physicality and design of their books, In the Shadow of No Towers is a must-have. Ditto for 9/11-aftermath obsessives and devout followers of Art Spiegelman, best known for his groundbreaking graphic novel Maus. For the other 99.3% of you, go ahead and just flip through this one at your favorite bookstore and save your cash.

A collection of autonomous broadsheets, Towers is printed on sturdy cardboard pages and possesses an elaborate physicality while remaining surprisingly thin at only 42 pages. Its subject is the author's neurosis, terror, and anger in the fallout of 9/11. Beginning with his mad scramble to retrieve his daughter from school that morning, the book documents his familiar fury as the press and government administration began their attack on civil liberties and independent thinking. Spiegelman's hard-on for the funny pages of yore distracts readers from the subject matter at hand, as Shadow of No Towers is as much an homage to the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo, and Krazy Kat as it is an evaluation of post-9/11 America. In fact, the second half of the book consists of straightforward reproductions of the WWI-era comics that Spiegelman borrows so heavily from in his own work. This smacks of a self-indulgent solution to not having enough material to create an already thin book. CHAS BOWIE

by Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf)

With what seems like billions of graphic novelists competing for space in the independent bookstores, Chicago resident Jeffery Brown's work is notable only for how crappy it is. The book that got him started, Clumsy, is a collection of horribly, hastily drawn autobiographical vignettes that were compulsively readable because panel after panel depicted the artist's rendition of himself having really awkward sex with his girlfriend. The whole charm of the thing was viewing a pathetic loser's nerd-porn as illustrated by a five-year-old.

But Bighead isn't pornographic at all, but a fictitious, satirical riff on classic serial comic books featuring an insecure superhero named Bighead, who battles equally insecure villains like "Crabby" and "Heartbroke." It's a decent enough idea--giving a sensitive wuss superheroic abilities--but Brown's artwork is as sloppy as ever, and his attempts at humor involve scenarios like Bighead's dismantling of Crabby by presenting him with a kitten, thereby melting his evil heart. Such stupidity wouldn't be so frustrating if I weren't convinced that Brown is actually fairly intelligent, and that he's reveling in dumb jokes and terrible drawings because he thinks it's somehow cute, or ironically funny. It's not, and what's more, when compared to graphic novels that actually have good stories to tell and skillful artistry to strut, it's downright boring. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS

Batman: Hush
By Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (DC Comics)

Batman has always been notable for what he isn't rather than what he is. He's not omnipotently powerful, like Superman. Nor is he like Spider-Man, with a barrage of witty asides. Instead, Batman has no powers, little charm, and his only real assets are rage, determination, and Bruce Wayne's billions. But for all the powers he lacks, Batman's something pretty rare in comics: a thinker. First and foremost, he's a detective, with a sharp intellect and a darkly obsessive disposition.

So Hush--the much-hyped collaboration between writer Jeph Loeb and artist Jim Lee--succeeds by being, first and foremost, a mystery. When Batman's biggest foes start lining up against him, he's left with a hell of a case: find out who's orchestrating the massive plot, or fall prey to an insurmountable torrent of villains. Between fistfights with the Joker and sexual tension with Catwoman, Hush is an operatic greatest hits collection of Batman's trademark villains and psychoses.

That bombastic quality is Loeb's calling card--check his work on the WB's equally preposterous Smallville--and Lee's fluid, obsessively detailed art does it justice. But between the massive fight sequences and Lee's ingenious characterizations--there's a deeply character-oriented and surprising story throughout. For all its bang and spectacle, the astonishing Hush ultimately succeeds because it tells one of comics' best detective stories--about, fittingly enough, comics' greatest detective. ERIK HENRIKSEN

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