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Review: New comics from Jessica Abel, Cole Closser and Michael DeForge

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
By Jessica Abel, Broadway Books, 240 pages, $20

In 1999, making a behind-the-scenes comic book that profiled This American Life, Jessica Abel was in on the ground floor of radio's renaissance. In the time since, she maintains, "radio in the U.S. has evolved entirely new ways of telling stories," with podcasts and programs such as Radiolab and Planet Money breaking new ground for the medium, and winning it new-found admirers. Expanding on the lessons she initially learned from host Ira Glass – who appears often in Out on the Wire as an amiable guide – Abel interviews the teams behind radio's vanguard, recasting their thoughts into comic-strip language. There's a remarkable kinship between the two art forms, so that radio's lessons about structuring stories apply equally well to comics (and writing and filmmaking), while Abel's cartooning evokes vivid scenes before the reader's eyes, much as radio does in listeners' minds. At times, the talking heads here seem too dense, or the visual metaphors too blatant, but Abel's presentation is more often streamlined and elegant. Her book itself exemplifies how to tell a tricky story cleanly and clearly.

Black Rat
By Cole Closser, Koyama Press, 160 pages, $15

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Cole Closser is a cartoon ventriloquist, sticking his hand into bodies of comic-strip work not his own and making them speak with a creaky, unnatural, wondrous voice. His sophomore book takes a simple cartoon archetype – the black rat of the title – and turns him into a funny book version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, immortal and ageless, traipsing through past eras of his medium's history. Each chapter pastiches a different antiquated aesthetic, with the rat dropping into stories that replicate the dubious printing quality of prewar Japanese manga, or parrot the stilted manner of old children's books by the likes of Johnny Gruelle (creator of Raggedy Ann). But beneath Closser's rollicking adventures and note-perfect mimicry resounds a black note of dread and despair. The rat converses with his human companions in gnomic utterances, drained of affect – "Everything dies," one person says; "If it lives," the rat replies – and his deathless existence comes to seem selfish and sinister, compared with the transience of everything around him, all faded ink and crumbling paper.

Dressing
By Michael DeForge, Koyama Press, 120 pages, $19.95

Throughout this startling, inventive collection of short comics – his third in three years – DeForge sloughs off stories like a snake does skins. His styles slink from primitive to twee to toxic and back, from the scrawl of a first-grader to something like X-rated anime viewed under blacklight. Fittingly, his comics take this kind of startling change as their very topic. DeForge's characters mature unwillingly, moulting away their old lives and dressing up in new identities – if not new bodies. In one strip, spooked colonists adapt to their new lives on Mars, their flesh mutating and memories fading; in another, a shadowy firm uses a young man's Web history to destroy his life and alter his identity. The last story seems to show cities viewed from a hijacked plane, but they could be mistaken for clusters of cells, metastasizing under a microscope. Count DeForge among that class of literary trickster – Donald Barthelme or, heck, why not Kafka – whose bizarre, melancholic fancies map onto amorphous modern anxieties in ways that realist fiction could never imagine.

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