The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition
By Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, DC/Vertigo, 224 pages, $29.99
The new volume in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series – the goth-fantasy saga where he first earned his fame, and which he concluded 20 years ago – is more coda than overture. Though the book is meant to set up the very first Sandman story, explaining how the godlike immortal named Dream starts off exhausted and imprisoned, Overture doesn't lead into anything so much as it reprises old themes. Relying on readers to recognize bit players or tie up loose ends left dangling for decades, and saddled with cumbersome plot lines involving intergalactic war and alternate realities, Overture would be a bit of a slog even for the initiated, if it weren't for the artwork of J.H. Williams III. Provided your tastes run to the ornate and swoony, Williams produces the most sumptuous comic book visuals of the year. Gaiman writes to Williams' strengths, letting the artist luxuriate in double-page spreads laid out like maps or houses or gemstones, each facet of which Williams fills with detailed, ethereal pencil work or cosmic, kaleidoscopic painting.
Sky in Stereo
By Sacha Mardou, Revival House Press/Alternative Comics, 180 pages, $24.95
The debut graphic novel from Sacha Mardou presents a familiar story: a precocious teenager lacks stimulation in her dead-end town, and so she tries on new identities based on religion, or boys, or music, and finally drugs. Mardou's contemplative narrator, Iris, lives under the grey skies of mid-nineties Greater Manchester, testing out acid and passionless flings when she's not slinging fast food or going to class. The cartoonist draws Iris's humdrum existence in prosaic fashion, at first – all sure-handed lines, tidy little rooms and unchanging vistas. But by the end of this volume (another will follow), Sky in Stereo shifts into something unmoored and unpredictable, imperceptibly tracing the path by which Iris's inquisitive and skeptical nature slips into simply becoming adrift. Even during Iris's most disorienting trips, Mardou refrains from visual pyrotechnics, opting instead for a writerly approach. She intimately acquaints readers with a solid, reliable character, making us her sole confidantes, only later revealing how badly Iris has been fraying all along.
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
By Riad Sattouf, Metropolitan Books, 160 pages, $29.99
The first installment of former Charlie Hebdo contributor Riad Sattouf's cartoon memoir arrives fresh from the bestseller lists in France. Like hits such as Pyongyang or Persepolis, Sattouf presents timely, candid insights into life behind the curtain in news-making nations – namely, in this case, Libya and Syria. More interested in loony minutiae than big-picture politics, Sattouf pokes fun at the everyday customs of both the Arab and Western worlds of his upbringing. The cartoonist vividly recalls details of life in Gaddafi's Libya (where if the Sattoufs leave their home unattended, an itinerant family has the right to move in) and Assad's Syria (where only the "finished" houses are taxed, so everyone leaves rebar sprouting out of their roofs), as well as Mitterand's France (where complacency cows Sattouf's grandparents and classmates). Sattouf's mother remains little more than a cipher, but he turns his fervent father into a comedic whirlwind, and in the artist's own self-portrait – as an addled, cherubic Fauntleroy – he nails the inexplicable dizziness of being a child.