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REVIEWED HERE: Snaps, b y Rebecca Kraatz: Killing Velazquez, by Philippe Girard; The Next Day, by Paul Peterson, John Porcellino and Jason Gilmore

Comics have become a more ubiquitous feature of the Canadian publishing landscape. The pre-eminent force remains Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly, declared "central to North American comics publishing" by Francoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, on the company's 20th anniversary in 2009.

But smaller publishers are increasingly dotting that landscape. Conundrum Press, also based in Montreal, has focused largely on translating work from Quebec's underground francophone comics scene. Then there's Pop Sandbox, also a multimedia production company, whose inaugural release, KENK: A Graphic Portrait, was named a Best Book of 2010 by Quill & Quire.

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This spring has already seen major releases from D&Q, such as Chester Brown's confessional Paying For It. On the indie margins, several notable new comics warrant attention: work from award-winners, established artists and possible future stars. The results are sometimes mixed, but also often compelling – and for that matter make for fast-paced beach reading.

Snaps is the second graphic novel by Dartmouth, N.S., artist Rebecca Kraatz, winner of the 2007 Canadian comics world's Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent. Made up of distinct yet sometimes overlapping chapters, the book was inspired by an old 1940s photo album.

The central notion is that countless sad, grand or tragic tales hide beneath the surface of ordinary lives, and that certain personal episodes can prove definitive. That idea is expressed through the solid, almost chiselled quality in Kraatz's figures and faces, conveying a sense of weightiness.

And like the best comics artists, Kraatz understands the potential in comics for interplay between image and text. We see this in as simple an example as a woman noting: "The skirt of my dress can still swirl." And we see her swirl the skirt of her dress.

Yet other instances reflect, perhaps, Kraatz's limited assurance as an artist. At one point, a young woman's suitor surprises her to announce he has joined the navy. A whirl of thoughts lets loose from her heart, in textual form. ("Brilliant! Now I have no one to take me out!")

Conceptually, this is good cartooning. But the execution comes off as strained. For that matter, Kraatz often seems unsure of how to fill her panels, with some sequences reading like filler.

Nonetheless, some incidents have bracing power, with Kraatz understanding how comics can maximize dramatic high points, stripping away what would take paragraphs to relate in prose. Some action simply wouldn't hold the same power in words – as when a heartless cad strikes a match across the face of a woman who tells him she's pregnant.

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Similar problems recur in another recent Conundrum release, Quebec artist Philippe Girard's Killing Velazquez, an autobiographical tale of Girard's youthful encounter with a sexually abusive priest. The material is in stark contrast to his lighthearted Ruts & Gullies: Nine Days in Saint Petersburg.

Unfortunately, the pages, panels and images don't always count as they should: One sequence of Girard's younger self taking a bus ride, for example, seems without purpose. Characters' faces lack any significant range of expressiveness, which sometimes renders the storytelling a bit leaden.

But there are moments where Girard's considerable talent is apparent. One powerful page design uses the panelling to divide Philippe's tormentor into half a man – and, on the bottom, half a demon. Then there's a tense, visually compelling sequence where Philippe and another boy lock themselves in a room to wait out the predator.

The Next Day (which has also been turned into an interactive animated online documentary) is co-written by Paul Peterson, Jason Gilmore and cartoonist John Porcellino, acclaimed for his self-published King Cat series. Like Girard, the book uses cartooning to tackle profound subject matter: It's based on interviews with four real-life survivors of suicide attempts.

In both dark subject and spare style, the book reminds one of Sarah Leavitt's Tangles, which concerned Alzheimer's and was the first-ever graphic novel nominated for a Writers' Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize, in 2010. The visuals in The Next Day are even more distilled, however, in Porcellino's trademark "doodle" style.

Yet Porcellino understands the power that resides in the simple graphic, and gets forceful ideas across in a direct, sometimes brutal fashion. And the effect perhaps mitigates or offsets the sadness of the narratives, without either undercutting or diminishing them.

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The most powerful instance of this is when one character tells of being molested, as a child, by an uncle – with the relative represented as an amorphous yet threatening blob. Text and image also meld powerfully in a sequence where a character relates how she threw herself down stairs, with words and pictures functioning as counterpoint.

The Next Day is a worthwhile, distinctive follow-up to KENK. And while the latest Conundrum offerings may not quite match Dave Lapp's wondrous Children of the Atom, Jimmy Beaulieu's beautiful and romantic Suddenly Something Happened or David Collier's Doug Wright Award-nominated Chimo, the works of Kraatz and Girard demonstrate the distinctive powers of the comics medium.

Kenton Smith is a freelance arts and culture critic and comics enthusiast based in Winnipeg.

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