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New in comics: Three books to check out now

How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis, Fantagraphics, 152 pages, $24.99

Hardly a manual for joy and success, Eleanor Davis's deceptively titled book doesn't direct its readers toward happiness so much as it documents its characters' desperate yearning for peace. Davis's "how-to" is no confident self-help mantra: it's a question asked endlessly, frantically, throughout each of these aching stories. Using approaches that range from the sci-fi to the slice-of-life, from the parable to the diary entry, Davis creates people visibly ill at ease with themselves. Whether they're medieval troubadours, back-to-nature survivalists, or teens just embarked on summer romance, her characters are all hulking shoulders and spindly legs, their ungainly bodies somehow graceful despite their troubles. While they suffer the loss of a loved one or crippling self-doubt, Davis renders their perseverance with moving and empathic beauty. Often doing away with pen-and-ink linework entirely, the artist sculpts scenes with solid blocks of sombre colour – ochre and crimson and cornflower blue – that make loneliness lovely, and anxiety art.

Walt Before Skeezix by Frank King, Drawn & Quarterly, 540 pages, $44.95

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Gasoline Alley is famous for being the first comic strip to watch its characters age in real time, following the discovery of baby Skeezix on bachelor Walt Wallet's doorstep in 1921. Those early years as Skeezix grows have been the subject of several handsome editions designed by cartoonist Chris Ware, which have helped to win Alley creator Frank King a new generation of devotees, charmed by his gentle, agreeable rhythms. This latest volume demonstrates that King had mastered that easy cadence and benevolent outlook even before Skeezix arrived, when the strip still centred around a cast of automobile enthusiasts who congregated in a Chicago back alley. In these pages, dating from 1918 to 1920, Walt and his pals merely tinker with cars, play golf, brew illicit hooch, and tour the countryside. But even in this chronicle of men in the off-hours, King instills the proceedings with his signature brand of kindly, leisurely warmth, and true fellow-feeling.

Trillium by Jeff Lemire, DC/Vertigo, 192 pages, $19.99

In Jeff Lemire's high-concept love story, it is the year 3797 and a virus has decimated most of humanity, leaving the few survivors to search for a breed of trillium that inoculates against the illness. But it's also 1921, and a veteran of the Great War treks through the Amazon to find an ancient Incan kingdom, where fields of trilliums grow. A time-travel mash-up of jungle adventure and space opera, Trillium turns even more storytelling cartwheels than the Toronto cartoonist's breakthrough, Essex County, which hopped through a century-long family saga. Not everything here works: Lemire's rough-hewn art looks in a hurry to catch up with the headlong pace of his ideas, and the writing's more adept with the far future than the past, full of stale Britishisms and storybook Natives. Luckily, Lemire takes such stumbles in stride, eager to turn up other generic conventions – like body-swapping, steampunk, and psychedelic vision quests – he can fuse into improbable, invigorating combinations.

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