Tales of Exploration

2014’s graphic novels share expeditions sublime and surreal

Many of the best graphic novels published this year detail stories of expanding frontiers. Some of these transgressed borders are physical, while others are spiritual or emotional. All of these books, however, celebrate the spirit of exploration that comics so vividly bring to life.

Manifest Destiny Volume 1 (Image Comics, $9.99) reimagines Oregon’s patron saints Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as trackers of the bizarre and unexplained. Just as you learned in eighth grade history, the intrepid explorers and their crew are on a government-mandated mission to explore the Louisiana Purchase.

Where fact collides with fiction, the graphic novel reveals that President Thomas Jefferson has charged the Corps of Discovery with a more clandestine order: to engage and eliminate a series of vicious paranormal monsters inhabiting the West. In the course of their riverboat journey across the new United States, the explorers face off against buffalo centaurs and plant zombies in a delightful, frenetic mashup of history and fantasy.

In the eagerly-anticipated New York Times bestseller Seconds (Ballantine Books, $25), Bryan Lee O’Malley returns to the ground he found so fertile in his Scott Pilgrim series, that of a twentysomething trying to find a path in the world.

But where the Pilgrim books utilized a sprawling, hyperactive brand of magic realism, in Seconds O’Malley veers wholesale into urban fantasy, spinning the tale of Katie, an ambitious young chef attempting to extricate herself from her first restaurant (and its eccentric staff) for a new start in a second.

Along the way Katie makes a few mistakes, both professional and personal. What begins as a well-written soap opera quickly evolves into something a lot more fantastic — and a whole lot darker — when she begins rewriting the past by ingesting otherworldly mushrooms growing under the restaurant floorboards. As is often the case in navigating fiction’s realms of the unseen, the self-centered chef learns the compelling lesson that magic always demands a price.

Tony Millionaire’s long-running comic gets the royal treatment with a handsome compendium from Seattle-based publisher Fantagraphics. Sock Monkey Treasury: A “Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey” Collection (Fantagraphics, $39.99) follows in the hallowed footsteps of Winnie-the-Pooh, Toy Story and The Nutcracker with a plotline centered on the secret adventures of toys come to life.

Unlike those stories, however, it would be wholly inappropriate to allow younger children to read Sock Monkey; unless, that is, your young child is ready for inebriated stuffed animals, fairies performing lobotomies and an extended rumination on the nature of reality.

For all its laugh-out-loud edginess, the lovingly illustrated, Victorian-era antics of Millionaire’s protagonist playthings are always moving, often sentimental and never forced. The effect makes the work a sort of spiritual successor to Calvin and Hobbes, a tribute to both the keen light of imagination and to its cloudiest corners.

Many Americans are unaware of the fame Disney’s duck characters enjoy through much of the world. In the handsome reprints of Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Don Rosa Library, Vols. 1 & 2 Gift Box Set (Fantagraphics, $49.99), cartooning journeyman genius Rosa displays his penchant for turning out issue after issue of globetrotting adventures, the basis for the 1980s Saturday morning staple Duck Tales.

The series dates itself a bit; the denizens of the foreign nations Scrooge and company visit are lightly lampooned in stereotypical shorthand worthy of the books’ cartoon roots. The work is more than deserving of a collection centered on the work of a funnybooks auteur, however. The set makes an impressive holiday gift for kids, and what could make more sense in a town obsessed with Ducks?