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From "Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness" by Reinhard Kleist

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Edward R. Crumb's "Book of Genesis"

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Holiday books: Graphic novels

  • November 21, 2009 - 11:55 PM

Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist (Abrams, 224 pages, $17.95). Johnny Cash was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He was also a bit of a jerk. In this graphic biography, German cartoonist Reinhard Kleist covers Cash's life, warts and all. While much of the story is told in classic biopic fashion, Kleist also mixes in dreamlike interpretations of the singer's songs, which can make for a dizzying read. But the stunning black-and-white artwork (especially the way he renders song lyrics -- like kites floating off the page) gives the book a real sense of gravitas. Even if you know nothing about the Man in Black, this is a worthwhile addition to any comic book fan's library.

Bob Dylan Revisited by various artists (W.W. Norton & Co., 104 pages, $24.95). Dylan fans have had 40 years to evaluate the many meanings found in the legendary songwriter's extensive song catalog. But they've never experienced his music like this before. In this collection, a group of the comic book world's most gifted artists have reinterpreted 13 of Dylan's most beloved songs. Frequent Neil Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean transforms the epic 1965 song "Desolation Row" into a nightmarish journey filled with warped imagery and frightening characters. Serbian cartoonist Gradimir Smudja gives 1975's "Hurricane" a more literal translation, as he basically storyboards Dylan's lyrics about the wrongfully imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter. The book comes fully authorized by the man himself.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (W.W. Norton & Co., 224 pages, $24.95). The audacity alone is worth a look. Crumb -- the comics master known for his subversive humor and overly sexualized depictions of women -- has interpreted the first book of the Bible in classic black and white. With razor-sharp detail, he depicts everything from a naked Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden to Cain bashing in Abel's skull with a rock. The advisory on the book's cover is no joke ("Adult supervision recommended for minors"). In his intro, Crumb insists that no part of this rendition is meant to be satirical. Indeed, he has illustrated Genesis word for word, a process that took him five years to complete. But c'mon, we're talking about Crumb here. The result is nothing short of astounding, both for religious followers and comic fans anxious to see what Crumb will do next.

Nancy Vol. 1 by John Stanley (Drawn and Quarterly, 128 pages, $24.95). First off: The design of this hardcover collection is amazing. Nancy was the young star of a classic Sunday comic strip by Ernie Bushmiller (imagine Charlie Brown but with more attitude). Nancy later appeared in comic books by children's master John Stanley, and those stories are given the royal treatment here. The strips appear in their original halftone glory on faux newsprint pages. The cover (designed by Seth) is a simple but stunningly bold graphic of Nancy's trademark puffy black hairdo. The stories will entice older nostalgic fans and entertain young readers.

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater by Eric P. Nash (Abrams, 304 pages, $35). Manga is everywhere nowadays. But did you know that the Japanese comic-book style -- famous for its giant robots, violence and characters with big eyes -- owes its existence to lowly street performers from the 1930s? Kamishibai (meaning: paper theater) is Japan's forgotten form of street entertainment in which storytellers would act out imaginative tales using illustrated boards on miniature wooden prosceniums. New York Times writer Eric P. Nash presents this history with a wealth of original Kamishibai images and a well researched narrative. The art form's demise came at the hands of -- what else? -- television. But some of its best artists would go on to create modern manga. Cover to cover, this is a gorgeous book.

-- by Tom Horgen

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