Let’s retire the question “how are you,” because answering it requires that you explain the spinning plates of chaos that have taken over everyone’s lives—which is, at this point, impossible. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single person in the last eight months who knows how they are, and at this point “how are you” isn’t a polite check-in anymore, it’s not small talk, it’s just an awkward way of asking “do you understand any of what’s going on right now?” And the only honest answer to that question is a helpless shrug.
In its place, I suggest the more direct “what’s been going well for you lately?” Maybe the answer is "nothing," but at least it's a question a person can answer… unless you are a character in one of this week’s new comic books, all of which revolve around pandemonium, tumult, and control slipping impotently through our heroes’ fingers. Are they prepared to face a haunted ocean, a cobblestone labyrinth, and microscopic assassins? Probably not, but face them they shall.
As always, thanks to Phoenix Comics on Capitol Hill for helping to pick out this week’s most intriguing new releases—and don’t forget to support your local comics shop, one of the only anchors of stability in these stormy times. Phoenix now offers delivery options—for a small fee you can get as many books as you want delivered to your home, provided they can fit in Nick's car.
Sprinkle a little Brazil over The Crying of Lot 49 and add a little Kaufmanesque Adaptation energy, then bake for a couple of years and you’ll have The Book Tour, a story of an author trapped in a dizzying mystery spiral that winds between labyrinthine European alleys and meandering bookstores. G. H. Fretwell is a nebbishy British author sent out into a baffling world to promote his new book that absolutely nobody seems to want. As he gets lost down twisting paths and abandoned by his publisher, he sparks some decidedly unwanted interest: That of the police, who suspect that he’s involved in the disappearance of a bookstore clerk. The world is confusing and Fretwell’s anxiety transforms every charming brick lane and bookshelf into looming henges that look at times like monstrous fangs about to snap shut on him, menace and mystery hiding in the scratchy art as though Edward Gorey leaned in say “can you make it spookier?”
Somehow this one escaped my attention until just now, and I will never forgive my fellow gay nerds for not urging me to pre-order the book months ago. An expansion of the Hammerverse world of superheroes, Barbalien is set in the dark days of 1986 and follows an undercover Martian named Markz who finds a career as a cop on Earth as the HIV crisis continues to escalate. It’s an unlikely pairing, superheroes and aliens and AIDS, but the metaphor of a stranger in a strange land works perfectly. As the epidemic spins out of control around him, Markz can’t even ask himself what his place is in the world, because he has no idea which world is his. This first issue sets up a meditation on belonging, on coping as an outcast, and on the cruel unfairness of being subject to the whims of forces you can’t possibly control—viral forces that are invisibly small, and social forces so huge their dimensions can’t possibly be understood.
History and horror collide at sea in this unsettling tale. It’s 1926, and a salvage ship is scouring the ocean for a sunken sub and the wealth trapped inside. But beneath the unknowable waves lurks a terrible menace that rivals the rapaciousness above. Life on the ship is stormy and austere, and issue #1 spends the bulk of its pages establishing the mood—weatherbeaten, deadly, rippling with shadow. Fans of the film The Lighthouse will appreciate the foreboding confusion and the clashes between the secretive crew, who can barely keep their demons in check as each wave splashes the deck with dread. Though the opening is a bit lighter on plot than I normally prefer, Sea of Sorrows is seeded with anxious foreboding about what awaits our damaged cast of characters.
Also good this week: It may not be to everyone’s taste, but consider the very adults-only Ludocrats. Like the recommendations above, it’s infused with pandemonium, but unlike the ghoulish Sea of Sorrows and bureaucratic nightmares of The Book Tour, it’s at least having a good time. Set in a world of hedonism where everything is allowed except being boring, I found the book a little too exhausting to enjoy, like a Ren and Stimpy sketch stuck on its most manic moment. But fans of frantic mayhem will find every page rewarding, particularly the many depictions of wieners.
And take a look at A Dark Interlude, a followup to the Fearscape story by Ryan O’Sullivan. Some familiarity with the first book is probably advisable; both books are intriguing takes on the power of a myth to cross over into real life. I might compare it to Tristram Shandy in that you never know exactly how much you can trust the story’s own telling. Also We Live Issue #2 is out this week, a continuation of one of our many previously-recommended post-apocalypses; and Marvel's Voices: Indigenous Voices is a wonderful collection of stories with a Native perspective. (Not to be confused with Marvel's Voices, a totally separate book with an almost-identical title that also came out this week. Planning could have been better on that one!)