After the Fall

The appearance of Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, $19.95) should be a real event. It's Spiegelman's first extended work in comics form since he finished Maus, well over a decade ago; his subject this time is the fall of the World Trade Center and his own post-Sept. 11 trauma, presented in something like the format of early-20th-century comic strips.

In practice, though, it's a colossal wet firecracker, a trifle blown up to enormous size and heft (it's printed on heavy card stock). In the Shadow of No Towers is a series of 10 tabloid-sized strips. They were initially planned as a weekly series, which it took Spiegelman the better part of two years to complete. He complains in the introduction that he had difficulty finding American newspapers "outside the left-leaning alternative press" that would run oversized, full-color pages whenever he got around to finishing them -- has any other cartoonist ever gotten that kind of carte blanche?

The No Towers strips are formally audacious juxtapositions of styles and perspectives: computer graphics, bold Maus-style pen-and-ink renderings, and approximations of a dozen century-old strips, overlapping each other in half-panicked chaos. But they don't have anything like the force of Spiegelman's famous black-on-black New Yorker cover illustration of the towers. He's venting in all directions rather than making a point, and his jokes are pure lead. Directed by a Homeland Security "Red, White and Blue Alert," for instance, Spiegelman buries his head under a flag. "I should feel safer under here, but -- damn it! -- I can't see a thing!" he exclaims.

To fill out the book, we also get examples of some of the vintage newspaper strips that inspired No Towers: a grandly witty 1907 "Little Nemo in Slumberland" page by Winsor McKay that involves some buildings in Lower Manhattan being knocked over, a 1921 specimen of George McManus's "Bringing Up Father" in which the Leaning Tower of Pisa is propped up so it won't collapse, and so on. It's too bad the main attraction doesn't have these old strips' verve, or their bite.

Tiger and the Tank

The initial concept of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's earthy crime series 100 Bullets wasn't too promising: A mysterious man presents down-and-out people with a briefcase containing incontrovertible evidence of who's wronged them, a gun and a hundred bullets that the law won't hold them responsible for using.

Over the past four years, though, it's deepened into a broader and more coherent story about violence and its spiraling consequences. The untraceable ammo, as it turns out, is a test: a pathway into an enormous conspiracy, a war between America's secret rulers and their former servants. And the people who hold the guns find their lives splintered further by their license to kill.

100 Bullets: Samurai (Vertigo; paperback, $12.95) collects two storylines about imprisoning bars and bestial natures. In the first, "Chill in the Oven," we revisit Loop Hughes, a promising, smartmouthed young tough from earlier in the series, now in a brutal prison, losing hope and caught between three factions who want him dead. The second, "In Stinked" (Azzarello has a regrettable penchant for ungainly puns), involves a pair of junkies, a crooked zookeeper in league with an even more crooked cop, some Mafiosi in the mood for a hunt, and a hungry 500-pound tiger with one of the special guns in his cage.

Azzarello is willing to force his audience to re-read his stories a few times to make sense of them: At first, they're a mess of slurred slang and constant violence, as vulgar as a half-dried bloodstain and so hard-boiled they're almost inedible. But careful examination makes all the pieces fall into place in the greater mosaic of the series, where justice and retribution are nothing but ephemeral fantasies for the pawns in a game of power. Risso and colorist Patricia Mulvihill make Samurai seem even bleaker and more jagged: Their artwork is all wiry pen-lines, chiaroscuro and the dirty palette of dim electric-bulb light, and the faces and bodies Risso draws are contorted by stress and weight.

One mystery: Why is this volume called Samurai, since that word appears nowhere within the comics themselves? Perhaps because it's the series's seventh collection, and hence an allusion to "The Seven Samurai," or because honor and loyalty are at the core of these stories -- or, rather, the mystery of who will be loyal to whom, and what honor may consist of, under the warping, burning lens of a gun's sight.

Sketches of Spain (and More)

Having won a heap of awards for his mammoth autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, the young cartoonist Craig Thompson went on a 10-week tour of Europe and Morocco earlier this year to research his next book, and just happened to keep a sketchbook/travel diary. He describes Carnet de Voyage (Top Shelf, $14.95) as "a little snack -- a la airline pretzels" for his readers.

Some snack. Carnet is more than 200 pages of exquisitely observed drawings, flush with the sheer joy of making pictures. Thompson draws crowds, tiles, young women, old men, buildings; he caricatures himself with rubbery limbs and a pointy nose; he diagrams a dinner of raclette in the Alps, the changes in scenery on the way out of Marrakech, and the anatomy of the camel he rides through the Sahara. He provides extensive handwritten captions for everything, analyzing his own changing perceptions of himself as a traveler and giving the book the casual, digressive narrative of a letter home.

Thompson is a compulsive artist -- he can't restrain himself from drawing everything interesting he sees, and he transforms everything with his pen and brush into a whirling rush of splintery lines and uneven curves. Throughout the second half of Carnet de Voyage, he complains frequently about crippling pain in his drawing hand, which doesn't stop him from turning out three or four glorious pages a day. (Neither does his fling with a gorgeous Swedish woman in Barcelona.) He might want to think about conserving his hand, though: At one point, he and a friend watch a movie of the aged Renoir, his hands mangled by arthritis and wrapped in bandages. The prospect of the same thing happening to this 28-year-old wonder is frightening.

Love Affair

The first volume of the Japanese manga series Princess Ai (Tokyopop; paperback, $9.99) was written and drawn by Misaho Kujiradou and D.J. Milky, but the selling point of the series is its co-creator, Courtney Love. The infamous singer is also, more or less, the book's star: Princess Ai's name means "love" in Japanese, and, fittingly, sounds like "I" in English. The alien princess lands on Earth in the middle of Tokyo, carrying a mysterious heart-shaped box (any resemblance to a Nirvana song title is entirely intentional), and gets involved with an adorable but troubled blond singer-guitarist named Kurt -- no, excuse me, Kent.

By the end of the book, Ai has grown a pair of wings (evidently not through plastic surgery) and taken to wearing ripped-up dresses. She's also working in a strip club, but not stripping: "My body is sacred, so it's a no-go," she explains in the translation's dented English. Instead she's singing hard rock, with a repertoire that includes Love's own "Hold On to Me." (Every time she sings, all the other characters comment on how talented she is, like courtiers surrounding the Sun King.) There's also a subplot involving evil creatures who are trying to destroy the princess and her family so that the "second revolution" will fail, but that's just a formality.

Princess Ai is very much of its genre -- shojo, Japanese comics aimed specifically at teenage girls. It's got all the stock shojo characters and situations: cute-as-a-button women with eyes half the size of their heads, willowy young men, accidents that make them fall on top of each other, wardrobe malfunctions, bitchy rivals, scheming corporations and a hefty helping of cheesecake.

Milky and Kujiradou do what they can under the circumstances. The artwork pulls off a certain campy glamour -- for instance, Princess Ai carries a heart-shaped umbrella. But most cartoonists don't have to suck up to their lead characters. *

Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly and the Believer. He is the author of "Live at the Apollo."