First Year Healthy by Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly, 48 pages, $14.95
Released back into her snowbound Northern Ontario town after a hospital stay due to an unspecified "episode," the nameless, flamboyantly coiffed protagonist of Michael DeForge's slim storybook proceeds to take on precarious employment at the local cannery, engage in sedentary adultery and huddle away from her neighbours and family. It's all the dour stuff of CanLit classics, told via captions of admirably deadpan prose, but invigorated and made searingly strange by the artist's flattened-out, fever-dream visuals – like Surfacing as told through Byzantine icons. DeForge structures his book as a series of tableaux where bilious shades of salmon, pistachio and pitch-black predominate, as though these glimpses of our heroine's life arrive filtered through her quavering consciousness. Soon, she cares dispassionately for a stranger's young child, then faces the holidays alone, while a chimerical, fiery-maned beast seems to prowl her home. DeForge's allegory of psychic recovery wavers on the unhealthy precipice between hope and despair, where his image-making has rarely been more potent.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks, Fantagraphics, 228 pages, $29.99
In the now-canonical Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks introduced us to a Borgesian library that housed all the masterworks that great cartoonists were never allowed to make. In this long-awaited spiritual sequel, the fantastic contrivance that drives the narrative is instead the titular pen, which creates in reality any world that its bearer can draw on the page. More Calvino than Borges, this book follows Kiwi cartoonist Sam Zabel – a stand-in for Horrocks, and crippled by writer's block – as he finds himself transported to gorgeous but troubling harem-filled realms that the pen had conjured up for now-dead male cartoonists. The story moves vertiginously between fantasy worlds, as Horrocks stages confrontations between comics' pulpy and frequently sexist past, and the more female-friendly webcomics and manga of present-day practice. Of course, Zabel finds his inspiration again along the way, but the book's real achievement is in the way it manages to be both besotted and furious with cartooning's speckled history – plus be newly impassioned about the future of comics.
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Patrick Manchette, Fantagraphics,104 pages, $19.99
Jean-Patrick Manchette's nasty 1972 roman noir about a spectacularly botched kidnapping attempt recently appeared in translation from The New York Review of Books as The Mad and the Bad. Now, in quick pursuit like the hitmen that course through its pages, here comes French comics great Jacques Tardi's equally nasty adaptation. Manchette's story tracks the course of a self-medicating but resourceful nanny (the mad), as she and her bratty young charge run hell-bent away from the clutches of killers who try to abduct them (the bad). Tardi preserves the book's headlong pace, while his gravelly black-and-white art restores a sense of corporeality to the vicious simplicity of Manchette's stripped-down prose. Each page looks besmirched with the muck and grime of the French countryside – or, eventually, with brains, blood and gnarly bits of bone. The book's centrepiece, a chaotic chase scene through a crowded town square and supermarket, reads like a master class in comic-book storytelling. This is a fine, tough, bloody one.