Stranger than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013, By M.K. Brown, Fantagraphics, 248 pages, $35
Given the disregard for convention that's on display in this hefty collection of comics – forget about punchlines or typical jokes, and don't even start with ideas about love or "what women want" – you wouldn't expect it to trumpet its own significance much, either. Yet this work is so wonderfully sui generis that it almost begs for some context to help explain M.K. Brown's vital contribution to contemporary humour, as one of the cartoonists involved in the National Lampoon's heyday. Brown's signature move is to take a humdrum set-up – a trip to the supermarket, a Mountie in distress – and detour it into dreamlike byways, whipping the world of dinner parties and dentists' chairs into a froth with her brush. In those Lampoon strips – along with work from Playboy, The New Yorker, and elsewhere – she concocts gleefully surreal views of modern mundanity, blooming with colour or craggy with ink, which remain glories to behold.
Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On, By Dakota McFadzean, Conundrum, 188 pages, $18
There's something of the prairies in Dakota McFadzean's cartooning. His short comics convey some of the same big-skyed isolation as Sinclair Ross's writing, or else they depict the kind of minute, unnerving disjunctions familiar from William Kurelek's weirder paintings. Often, they combine the two at once, making for inexplicable, fantastic incursions into bored domestic life: a murder of crows has designs on a tiny snowbound town; a Nintendo game harbours impossible secrets; youngsters are haunted by skeletons, ghosts, and the awkwardness of growing up. McFadzean fine-tuned his craft in New England and makes his home in Toronto, but that unending prairie horizon slices its way across so many of the panels here, it's like it left a scar in these stories. Such an exact evocation of place – along with the artist's careful craftsmanship, risky storytelling, and enigmatic endings – signals an ambition and assuredness that's remarkable to find in a debut book.
Beautiful Darkness, By Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoet, Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $22.95
If you can, browse the first handful of this book's bright pages to see what you're in for. The almost cloying whimsy of its opening scene – where prim, dainty watercolours show us a decorous, blue-blooded courtship in progress – quickly curdles and turns foul in irreparable, shocking fashion. This precarious balance between goody-good sweetness and gut-churning savagery continues throughout, as the book transforms into a fable of fairy folk lost in the woods, where wee creatures struggle and perish in most beastly ways. Newly translated from the award-winning French album, Fabien Vehlmann's tale of the rot underlying our prettiest fancies is gorgeously, grottily rendered by Kerascoët (the pen-name for Marie Pommepuy and husband Sébastien Cosset). None of your Disneyfied Tinkerbells here: this is the old, brutal stuff out of Andersen, Grimm, or Charles Perrault, where the wolf devours Red Riding Hood, and Snow White tortures her stepmom to death. Beautiful darkness, indeed.