Batman: Noël
by Lee Bermejo
(DC Comics)

Following a couple of collaborations with writer Brian Azzarello—Lex Luthor: Man of Steel and Joker—artist Lee Bermejo ventures out on his own with Batman: Noël, an original graphic novel that isn't so original. It's a riff on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with Gotham standing in for London, Batman playing Scrooge, and a desperate, amateur-hour thug with a gimpy son filling in for Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

Scientific fact: The last thing anyone needs is yet another riff on Dickens' worn-out tale [see opposing page—eds], and Bermejo's sometimes-clever attempts to kick some life into it (the "spirits" that visit Batman are Catwoman, Superman, and the Joker), add little of note. We're left, then, with the art—which, as was the case with Luthor and Joker, is rich and rewarding. Thanks to understated colors by Barbara Ciardo, Bermejo's snowy Gotham becomes a place of menace, beauty, and cold—a strange, darkly alluring city that, in its soaring skyscrapers and crumbling tenements, seems to offer any number of stories, all of them more interesting than this one.

Joe the Barbarian
by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
(Vertigo)

Leave it to Grant Morrison to riff on The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland, but do so through a hallucinatory glaze. Joe the Barbarian follows Joe, a nerd with a stressed-out mom, a killed-in-action dad, and an acute lack of glucose. Waking up from a dream in his attic bedroom—and remembering, too late, that some bullies took his candy bar/emergency sugar supply earlier—a weakened, frightened Joe realizes he needs to get downstairs, where there's a soda in the fridge. Only problem: He seems to have been transported to a sprawling, strange fantasy land. All of his toys have come to life, his pet rat has turned into a hulking warrior, and he's informed that, as "The Dying Boy," he's a harbinger of the apocalypse.

Fading in and out of his sugar-starved hallucinations, Joe's quest through his house's fantasy land is dangerous, frightening, and thrilling. Morrison's going for adventure here, and nails it, but the real draw is Sean Murphy's art and Dave Stewart's colors. Bright and stunning, and all but vibrating with life, emotion, and inventiveness, each page is astounding to look at. All that, and a fun Grant Morrison story to boot? Sold.

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Neonomicon
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
(Avatar Press)

There's some fucked-up shit in Alan Moore's latest, which starts like a standard cop procedural and ends as a torture-porny nightmare. Oh-so- naïve FBI Agents Brears and Lamper are assigned to what seems like a normal, if disturbing, investigation: Looking into some creepy murders that seem to be tied to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. But about .05 seconds after the duo starts snooping around in the ominous town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, everything turns terrible and hideous and brutal and nauseating. Moore's no stranger to the darker sides of human nature, and he's no stranger to sex, and he's no stranger to the sort of indescribable terrors that go bump in the night. Seeing all of those things combined at once, though—with vicious abandon, and rendered by Jacen Burrows with clear, matter-of-fact art—is a hell of a thing. Neonomicon is a horrific story, and horrifically effective. Good luck ever forgetting it, especially the next time you go into a swimming pool or EVER TRY TO FALL ASLEEP. That might be due to the Lovecraft-inspired subject matter, or to Moore and Burrows' skillful, almost cruel handling of it—but more likely than not, it's both. A perfect Christmas gift for Grandma!