The Enemy of Craft

James Kochalka is one of the most prolific cartoonists of the American underground, and he draws almost all of his projects -- from his autobiographical The Sketchbook Diaries to the kids' comic Peanutbutter & Jeremy to the X-rated Fancy Froglin -- in the same goofy, thick-lined style. The Cute Manifesto (Alternative Comics, $19.95) collects the strips he's done outlining his aesthetic, as well as some very short prose essays with titles like "Craft Is the Enemy" and "Craft Is Not a Friend."

Unfortunately, Kochalka's a much better cartoonist than he is a thinker. His philosophy of art basically boils down to, in his words, "follow the rhythm of the universe . . . and ALL will be well!" In one of his screeds against craft, he claims that "if you are trying to draw well what you are shooting for is illusory. There is, objectively, no such thing." Well, one good way of defining "drawing well" might be making your marks look like you want them to, or producing the reaction you desire in people who see them. The strength of Kochalka's composition, the bold sureness of his line and the consistency of his vision all suggest that he knows exactly how to draw the way he wants to. If that's not craft, what is?

The Cute Manifesto itself contends that "nothing is more beautiful than the cute because the cute is untouched by any foul thought or deed" and that "either we turn towards cuteness and beauty or we turn to follow suffering and death." (To illustrate the latter, Kochalka shows a kitty sniffing a flower rather than a decomposing corpse.) But it's cheating to claim that cuteness is the highest form of beauty or to conflate them. Cuteness is a form of beauty that makes you want to protect it or cuddle it. The emotions it produces are uncomplicated and pretty simple to evoke, which makes cuteness a powerful tool for artists since it makes anything more likeable. Cuteness is also very easy to pervert into kitsch -- artwork in which, as Milan Kundera puts it, "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Still, Kochalka's work is occasionally a little trickier than that: the aforementioned flower might be growing out of the corpse.

Fangs, Claws and Surface-to-Air Missiles

Kitties are always cute, and so are doggies and bunnies, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3 (Vertigo, $12.99) uses their inherent adorability to get at something much deeper and darker.

Bandit, Tinker and Pirate -- whose names we learn from lost-pet posters at the beginning of each chapter -- are a dog, a cat and a rabbit who've been outfitted in enormous robotic battle-suits. (The suits allow them to talk, but being animals, they only have vocabularies of a few dozen words, mostly having to do with food, danger and motion.) The three of them are sent out as assassins for the U.S. government, which then decides that they've outlived their usefulness. They escape, in a brilliantly choreographed sequence: six pages of small, fuzzed-out security-camera snapshots, then an enormous two-page shot of them bounding through the night. But then what? Bandit's dog-instinct is to lead the group toward home, even though he has no idea what "home" could be, and all he wants is someone to call him "good dog." Tinker's a cat, so she's protective of the others but also irritable and vicious. And Pirate is mostly just hungry and distracted, like any other rabbit. Meanwhile, the Army is trying to kill them, there's a cyborg mastiff on their trail and everything they do seems to erupt into spasms of bloodshed.

The genius of Morrison's story is that he mostly resists the impulse to anthropomorphize his nonhuman characters. We3 is about the way animals perceive the world. We see the story's explosions of violence as fragmentary bursts of dozens of tiny, near-simultaneous panels, and the story's political conflict makes for an unnerving contrast with the lost pets' simple biological drives. Quitely draws them as realistically as he can, which makes their shiny, cartoony armor seem nightmarish. Even the conclusion -- as dramatically satisfying as any in recent memory -- might be a happy ending and might not, depending on whether you choose to interpret it from a human perspective or an animal one.

Twentysomethings With Ninja Ex-Girlfriends

Cuteness is the dominant mode for manga, or Japanese comics, and the Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley's two "Scott Pilgrim" books -- last year's Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life and the new Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (Oni, $11.95) -- are drawn in a style heavily influenced by the cutest of manga. Everyone's got enormous eyes and distorted bodies, everything looks simple and bold, and whenever characters show up, fun facts about them appear in little boxes.

The story sounds, on the surface, like nothing we haven't seen a hundred times before: A mopey twentysomething in Toronto is playing in a small-time band and trying to figure out his love life. The difference is that this one is dizzyingly hilarious, buoyant and inventive, in both substance and style. Scott Pilgrim is the dorky but well-meaning bass player in Sex Bob-omb (whose leader is named Stephen Stills -- no relation). As we learned at the end of the last volume, in order to date the mysterious delivery girl Ramona Flowers, Scott has to defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. The book also involves a teenage ninja named Knives Chau whom Scott has recently dumped, a detailed recipe for vegan shepherd's pie, corporate art as a kung fu weapon, a "nouveau-Mexican" restaurant called the Gilded Palace of Flying Burritos and a skateboarding competition whose resolution owes more to PlayStation 2 than to anything ever seen in comics before.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is ultimately a story about relationship dynamics, but O'Malley makes sure there's something entertaining on every page -- snappy dialogue (Scott, looking at Ramona's list of "Things That Are Not Cool About Scott's Apartment": "What does 'not girl-friendly' mean?" Ramona: "It means it's a sucky little hole in the ground, Scott"), daffy little details and editorial digressions on Scott's last haircut and his ideas about Rome. And the deliberate cuteness of O'Malley's artwork serves his narrative, making it flow smoothly through its berserk stylistic hairpin turns.

Back in the Alley

Babies, of course, are ground zero for cuteness, but they do complicate everything around them. Frank King's long-running comic strip "Gasoline Alley" began in 1919 as gentle but forgettable whimsy about a bunch of car buffs hanging around and chatting about their vehicles. On Valentine's Day, 1921, it changed (and improved) radically: The strip's chubby, good-natured bachelor, Walt, found a newborn baby abandoned on his doorstep -- literally a "stepchild."

Walt and Skeezix (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95) reprints the daily strips from 1921 and 1922 in a gorgeous hardcover designed by "Gasoline Alley" buff Chris Ware and supplemented by a copiously illustrated essay about King and the real-life inspirations behind the strip.

Skeezix, as the baby is known, can't do much other than eat and cry at first, although he's talking and making some mischief by the end of the volume. (The strip's characters aged in real time -- they still do, actually, although King died in 1969.) Walt, on the other hand, has had his life turned upside-down; when his friends' wives demand their time, he still laughs it off with an "I know when I'm well off," but he also knows that being a devoted car enthusiast hasn't quite prepared him to be a father. When the community tries to set him up with a pretty young flapper near the end of the book, Walt is torn among his desire to put himself above his friends' machinations, his hormones and his longing to give the baby more of a family.

Walt and Skeezix doesn't include the Sunday strips in which King really got to show off his sense of design, but the dailies are visually splendid in their own right. He took obvious relish in drawing his characters, cars and settings, especially in a long sequence in which the cast takes a trip to Yellowstone Park. And as mild as King's wit usually is, he gets a lot of mileage out of the sense of desperation that any new parent feels in caring for something beautiful and helpless.

Strictly a D.U.C.K. Man

Cuteness keeps children interested in pretty much any kind of story. Carl Barks was the mastermind behind hundreds of Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge comics from the '40s to the '60s, and the antics of his adorable ducks, geese and dogs let him pull off some elaborately choreographed adventure stories. Don Rosa is a very different sort of cartoonist, but he's also fanatically devoted to Barks's work, and The Life and Times of $crooge McDuck (Gemstone Publishing, $16.99) is a delightful, if head-spinning, act of homage. The first panel of every Rosa story about the Disney ducks has the letters D.U.C.K. hidden in it somewhere -- the acronym stands for "Dedicated to Unca Carl from Keno," Rosa's real first name.

Barks's multizillionaire-skinflint Uncle Scrooge was forever dropping hints about his past: that he sold his ancestor "Seafoam" McDuck's heirloom gold teeth to buy a prospector's outfit, or that he "jounced to the African Rand in a bullock cart." For this mammoth story, Rosa has assembled all of those "Barksian facts" into a master narrative of the first 80 years of Scrooge's life. He's even worked out a family tree of all of Donald and Scrooge's kin. (Did you know that Donald's father Quackmore Duck had a sister named Daphne who married Goostave Gander? Now you do.) Amazingly enough, it all fits together into a witty, tightly plotted story about a plucky young duck starting from scratch and amassing a fortune while he loses his soul by degrees. We see Scrooge facing down Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, outrunning a flash flood in the Australian outback and finally hitting paydirt during the Klondike gold rush. Rosa crams every chapter of his serial with wordplay, historical nuggets, throwaway sight gags and references to his favorite old movies. (The final chapter begins with a delicious extended homage to "Citizen Kane.") And the Barksian idea he ultimately focuses on is a lovely one: that the reason Scrooge is so obsessed with not just wealth but money itself is that he's earned all of it through hard work, and each coin is a souvenir of an adventure from his extraordinary life. *

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