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The Scott Pilgrim series (2004 – 2010) is one of the most influential things to come out of Canadian comics. It captures the thrust of new artistic movements in the medium and storytelling modes in the first decade of the millennium. Bryan Lee O’Malley draws on video games and manga for its form – the six volumes are all made to imitate Japanese comic releases from the size to the panel formatting – while still retaining a unique look that distinguishes it from its inspirations.

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Charles De Lint is highly prolific and has explored a wide range of styles, but Moonheart (1984) set the dominant flavour for his work. When you think of the name Charles De Lint, you think of a very specific kind of urban fantasy.

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My experience with novels that have multiple authors is always coloured by wondering what part belongs to whom, and how things would have shaken out under just one pen or another. Often, the voices of the people involved dampen each other instead of sharpening their quirks and thematic obsessions, such that I come away feeling something is missing from the collaboration.

The Steel Seraglio (2012)has three authors, but I didn’t encounter any of those difficulties as I read it. Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey seem to operate on the same wavelength, maybe helped since they’re a father-mother-daughter team. Despite its multi-narrative structure, it flows together seamlessly. Maybe this is helped by its imitative nature, trying to evoke the 1001 Nights and the 20th century fantasies that drew from that, particularly the short fiction of Borges and Lord Dunsany. A distant fairy tale voice gives the authors a stylistic goal.

The novel tracks an attempt to create a utopia in the desert, its too-brief golden age, and then its fall back into the sands. The sultan of Bessa keeps a large harem that’s exiled out of the city after he’s overthrown by an ascetic cult-leader. The members of the harem never reach their ordained destination, instead becoming an army that returns to take Bessa and make it “the city of women.”* Yet they carry with them their undoing, the last surviving heir of the sultan among their ranks who comes back to a new-forged civilization that sees no need for patriarchal structures, and certainly not for a new sultan to rule them.

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1.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of circumstances and types of people that spurred on the intellectual achievements of classical Greece. While we admire Greek philosophers, the issues they discussed don’t come up all that often outside university campuses and late-night conversations. In modern life, philosophy has taken on a much smaller role in steering society, and we don’t tie together a broad range of activities like art, literature, biology, technology and the like under the same umbrella anymore.

Jo Walton, however, has gone ahead and tried to imagine a place where we would do these things in the three books that make up Thessaly (2017): The Just City, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity. These are very specifically books about Greek philosophy and the making of philosophers, tackling some of the most basic existential questions such as what is goodness, what is excellence, what is our purpose – and while Walton doesn’t provide universal answers, she centres the constant asking of these questions as the root to living a satisfying life.

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Phantomland by Maaria Laurinen perfectly captures the experience of being tossed into a new job head-first and feeling completely out of their depth. Notwithstanding that in this case, the job is joining an elite law enforcement unit that appears to only employ people who have already died.

This is a webcomic that clearly takes inspiration from the “big coat” fashion of Fullmetal Alchemist – just look at these jackets!

Yet that influence isn’t just aesthetic; it manifests in the impeccable paneling, expressive characters and equally expressive inking. The drawing skill on display is remarkable, as well as Laurinen’s grasp of composition and pacing.

Technical proficiency comes paired with characters the creator loves dearly. Chie is relatable as an apprentice who, underappreciated and underutilized, can’t deal very well with her insecurities on top of the amnesia that’s fundamental to becoming part of the “ghosts.” Jon is a grizzled veteran who hides trauma beneath a veneer of indifference and has no desire to be a mentor. Both are typical archetypes for a buddy cop story like this one, but they’re realized well and play off each other into a broader team dynamic as we’re introduced to other ghosts.

It’s obvious I really like Phantomland. It’s aims, at this point, seem simple – give readers a fun romp – but it’s executed so delightfully well I think more people need to read it.

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No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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Rasputin’s Bastards (2012) has a promising start with a giant dying squid. It’s a squid-filled novel, though David Nickle does not go the expected route and delve into the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, his imitators, and the other tentacle-obsessed. Rasputin’s Bastards centres on much more personal horrors of being unable to grasp your own identity and humanity.

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