"Judge Bao & the Jade Phoenix"
When I think of how amazingly versatile comics are, I think of publishers like Archaia Entertainment. It has just published six graphic novels -- none involving superheroes, no two remotely alike and all of them beautifully done.
Leaping to the top of the list is "Judge Bao & the Jade Phoenix" ($15), by Patrick Marty and Chongrui Nie. Judge Bao was an actual Chinese jurist known for his integrity and his implacable antagonism to corruption. He is a folk hero and symbol of justice in China, and the many tales about him have been adapted to various media, including comics, TV and movies.
That includes in France, where Marty and Nie have done a number of black-and-white, pen-and-ink graphic novels in a landscape format. Archaia has reprinted the first of these, and may the comic-book gods grant that it's not the last.
Marty has done a terrific job on "Jade Phoenix." He captures the social mores, attitudes and milieu of a wealthy, burgeoning Middle Kingdom in the early 11th century.
One aspect that should prove familiar to American readers is that Bao's entourage is a sort of superteam of the past. Bao is the brainy leader. Bodyguard Zhan Zhao is like Batman in that he is master of all weaponry and martial arts, able to defeat multiple ninjas and swordsmen alike; ready to infiltrate secret meetings; capable of traveling swiftly by foot, horse or rooftop -- and, like Bruce Wayne, irresistible to the ladies. The team also includes a one-man CSI that is both forensic accountant and pathologist, a couple of comic-relief characters and, like most every western or 1940s superhero, "the kid" -- a sidekick that doubles not only as the reader's point of view but someone to whom Bao can explain the plot.
But the real star is artist Nie, who makes the book absolutely unforgettable. His work is highly textured; it's a combination of rapidograph, brush and scratchboard that is amazingly photo-realistic, yet flexible enough to stretch from action scenes to character studies to exaggerated, freeze-frame theatricality. I've seen a lot of comics, but few as beautiful and finely crafted as this.
On the opposite end of the content scale is "The Dare Detectives: The Snow-Pea Plot" ($25), by Ben Caldwell. He is a toy designer, animator, illustrator and game artist and his experience in the first two categories is on full display.
The Dare Detectives are a trio of incompetent private sleuths in a Chinatown, made up of a brainy, impatient Hispanic girl; a strong but childlike lummox; and a snarky, anthropomorphic rabbit. If that sounds kind of odd, this team is actually a classic, based loosely on the Superego, Ego and Id.
To be honest, "Dare Detectives" is probably aimed at younger readers. But it's still among my top three of Archaia's latest releases and emblematic of the publisher's wide range of content.