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Smart Adventure

2013 reminds us what makes comic books fun

Like finding a lost treasure trove of old Pulp magazines in your grandfather’s attic, 2013’s bounty of graphic novels injected a sense of wonder into the medium, presenting straight-ahead, two-fisted adventure that doesn’t shy away from message or nuance.

Readers seeking a strong current of social satire will want to set sail for Great Pacific, Vol. 1: Trashed! (Image Comics, $9.99). Writer Joe Harris and artist Martin Marazzo introduce us to the headstrong scion of a Houston oil dynasty, who sets out to redeem the sins of his family — not to mention our species — by colonizing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the enormous (and sadly real) field of manmade flotsam trapped by currents in the Pacific Ocean.

But where genuine marine science leaves off — a submarine suspension of plastic particulates — Harris and Marazzo imagine an enormous continent, complete with vast beaches and inland mountains, all composed of water bottles and fast food containers. Our hero’s nascent nation-state is quickly beset by menaces both overt and subtle in a bizarre, fast-paced environmental fable of politics, pirates and Polynesian sovereignty.

A supernatural swashbuckling saga awaits in Five Ghosts, Vol. 1: The Haunting of Fabian Gray (Image Comics, $9.99), in which a World War II-era treasure hunter gets a leg up in his career by mystically mainlining the special abilities of five spirits of history and legend: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Miyamoto Musashi, Merlin the Magician and Dracula (with all the moral complications that last participant evokes).

At the hands of his creators Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham, the titular Fabian Gray fights the Nazis and monsters requisite in this sort of story while struggling to hold onto his own identity in the face of his schizophrenic superpowers. It’s every bit as delightfully schlocky as it sounds.

Speaking of the World War II era, veteran comics writer Mark Waid teamed up this year with illustrator Chris Samnee to revive a character designed pay homage to classic 1930s adventure serials with The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom (IDW Publishing, $24.99). Jetpack-equipped stunt pilot Cliff Secord returns to action, this time to fend off a cargo ship full of fugitive dinosaurs intent on turning Los Angeles into a wartime Jurassic Park. Featuring loving references to period-specific media like King Kong, the revered Rocketeer couldn’t be in better hands. 

From a broad-canvas sci-fi epic to a story that takes place mostly within a few city blocks, cartoonist Graham Chaffe’s black-and-white Good Dog (Fantagraphics, $16.99) introduces us to a smaller-scale adventure and makes a great gift for your best friend who loves stories about Man’s Best Friend. Ivan, a homeless mutt wandering through an economically depressed urban landscape, wants a master and a place to call his own. He decides to try his luck running with a rowdy pack of feral street dogs and quickly finds himself up to his collar in shenanigans. 

The salty language from these salty dogs means this book isn’t for kids. Deceptively simple in its sweet tone and straightforward story, Good Dog offers the adult reader some kibble for thought, demonstrating that, even for an animal, the idea of what it means to be “good” can be open to interpretation.   

It may be surprising, but Smurfs comics have been published for well over half a century. The Smurfs Anthology, Vol. 1 (Papercutz, $19.99) collects the earliest solo adventures from the 1960s series of Belgian graphic albums by Peyo. In these early tales, the azure-hued, pint-sized protagonists contend with an enchanted flute, Gargamel the Sorcerer and even a zombie Smurf plague.  

These stories, wholly appropriate for readers not much larger than Smurfs themselves, feature enough action to keep kids engaged, as well as gentle humor perfect for all ages. It’s Smurfy!