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Review: Sean Rogers looks at new comics by Tadao Tsuge, Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond, and David B.

Incidents in the Night, Book 2

By David B., Uncivilized Books, 120 pages, $27.50

The first episode of French cartoonist David B.'s hypnagogic thriller invited comparisons to Borges, thanks to its tale of a Napoleonic officer trying to evade death by hiding in the pages of forgotten books. The follow-up hews closer to the great silent-film serials such as Les Vampires, as B. unravels an occult history of Paris, constructed from covert rituals such as the coronation of beggar kings, and crawling with secret societies such as "the Fleet," a group of assassins who at the end of Book 1 murdered the author before he could betray their master. Now B.'s investigations get taken up by a beautiful journalist, a hard-bitten commissioner and the author's own brother, touchingly returned from the death we saw him suffer in B.'s landmark memoir, Epileptic. The plot sounds complex – what conspiracy isn't? – but B.'s pen leads readers through all this shadowy logic using suggestive visual metaphors, stark compositions and weightless chase scenes out of a nightmare, dense with all the arcane symbolism of religious icons.

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Secret Agent X-9

By Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond, IDW Publications, 304 pages, $62.50

More of a historical curiosity than a career highlight for either of its creators, the comic strip Secret Agent X-9 operates in the shadows cast by Dashiell Hammett's status as hard-boiled auteur, and by the subsequent fame of Flash Gordon artist Alex Raymond. X-9 – made to order in 1934, to cash in on the success of Dick Tracy – follows a nameless and fearless detective as he saves heiresses, orphans and eggheads from the depredations of the criminal underworld. Rote stuff, maybe, but it's fascinating to try and suss out the authorial marks of each superstar collaborator over the brief year or so before they abandon the feature. While Hammett whips up intricate plots and occasional banter recognizably his own, he never endows X-9 with the unique personality of a Continental Op or Sam Spade. So the collection ends up more of a showcase for the developing skills of Raymond, whose efforts at choreographing acrobatic action and limning glamorous all-American types get crisply reproduced in this huge new edition.

Trash Market

By Tadao Tsuge, Drawn & Quarterly, 272 pages, $24.95

In Trash Market – one of the year's major comics publications, historically important and aesthetically raw – Tadao Tsuge documents shabby, downtrodden life in postwar Japan with a crudity that hovers between realism and disgust. Originally published from 1968 to 1972, and for the most part in Garo magazine – once the hub for ambitious, innovative Japanese cartooning, like if Zap Comix had also been the Evergreen Review – the half-dozen stories collected here represent Tsuge's belated introduction to English-speaking readers. These desperate accounts of once-proud men selling their blood, salaried functionaries wandering aimlessly away from their jobs and unemployed youths erupting into angry, bloody protest ("let's kill them, it doesn't matter who") reveal a society wracked with economic and psychological defeat. The appendices, by Tsuge and historian Ryan Holmberg, help illuminate the autobiographical nature of many of these stories, rife with authentic evocations of the malaise and helplessness that beset the Japanese working class the author knew intimately – those "people who had their hands full getting through each day."

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