THE COLLECTED HUTCH OWEN, VOLUME ONE
by Tom Hart
(Top Shelf Productions) $14.95

By 1994, Tom Hart understood that the corporate war against individual expression had reached fight or flight status. In his seminal comic book Hutch Owen's Working Hard, the corporate bad guys at Worner Products make money hand over fist subverting alternative culture into product. Standing directly in their path is Hutch Owen, an uncompromised freethinker who lives hand-to-mouth in a homemade cabin. Owen's prank- filled confrontations with Worner grow increasingly physical, and scathingly funny, before coming to a head over a boy's fort built on a future blimp runway.

Hart sidesteps the traditional heroic outcome in favor of a bitter concession to the overwhelming banality of corporate America, but his protagonist sticks in your memory: the slightly odorous loudmouth you avoid even if you agree with everything he's saying. The first volume of Collected Hutch Owen contains that first comic book--which now reads like recentsocial history--and three other episodes in Hutch Owen's contentious existence. Hart's character is still righteously pissed off at the way the world works, but the situations in which he finds himself make it difficult to maintain his dignity, let alone fight back. For Hart, even throwaway workplace banter becomes soul-destroying ("Will you send me the 'poopy' e-mail?" "Sure, do you have any Mylanta?").

The final story, where Owen tries to impress a former girlfriend turned trade magazine editor and ends up panicked, confused, and discouraged, is a sad, comic gem. Hart is an exquisitely skilled cartoonist with a minimalist style perfectly suited for this insightful indictment of store-bought values. TOM SPURGEON

BLACK HOLE #8
by Charles Burns
(Fantagraphics Books) $4.50

Just being a teenager is surreal--it's the edge of experience, where unconscious ease grates against hyper self-consciousness. Everybody around you seems to know how to act, so the only thing to do is play along, no matter how weird it all gets.

Black Hole is a dark fantasy of late adolescence; Charles Burns renders the dread and confusion of senior year with the tense rhythms of a horror movie. Something is happening to the students of a high school in Seattle. They don't really seem to notice; it's the '70s, and they're too busy trying to catch a buzz to pay attention to some weird venereal disease that's going around. Symptoms of the disease vary, but they're all bizarre, and the kids who get it are instantly alienated. Keith's friends pass joints in Ravenna Park while he fantasizes about a girl in his biology class named Chris; Chris is into Rob, but Rob's got the virus. In the background lurk strange, misshapen creatures, terrible dreams, and the promise of some coming cataclysm.

Whatever the future of comics, audiences are going to look back on Charles Burns' Black Hole as a masterpiece. No one, with the possible exception of David Lynch, has ever rendered that unlocatable dread of impending suburban adulthood with such a gorgeous sense of horror. Burns destroys the line between the normal paranoias of late adolescence and the terrible fears of his fictional disaster; somehow, his fantastic rendition seems closer to the truth of growing up than mere nonfiction could ever get. EVAN SULT

SNAKE 'N' BACON'S CARTOON CABARET
by Michael Kupperman
(HarperCollins) $13

Fans of the Up All Night strip that ran for a few years in this paper probably know that P. Revess and Michael Kupperman are one and the same and have likely memorized this entire collection by now. Starring his popular lampoon of a popular comedy team-- literally a snake, a strip of bacon, and their respective catch phrases--Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret draws lovingly from the one-dimensional simplicity of the Sunday funnies, with characters like Criminal District Attorney and Underpants-On-His-Head-Man representing their absurd, absolutely fucking hilarious extreme.

But the fun doesn't stop with Pablo Picasso: His Amazing Life, a recurring strip presenting the painter as a delusional maniac with a bad accent who threatens to break everything he sees "into the leetle cubes." Several longer stories prove Kupperman as imaginative a writer as he is an illustrator: odysseys of pure, hysterical nonsense like "Long John Silver's Party Sex Blimp." It's humor that'll have you laughing so hard by its end, you'll feel like each member of Kupperman's league of sub- heroes has punched you in the stomach. JASON PAGANO