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Horror, chaos and satire: three comics to check out

Through the Woods

By Emily Carroll, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 208 pages, $26.50

Horror fans, rejoice: Canadian cartoonist Emily Carroll's debut book of stories tingles the spine and wows the eyes, without ever numbing the brain with slasher-film shocks. Well-known on the web, Carroll's comics occur in a netherworld of chateaux and forests, where unseen terrors prowl the dark. While these stories retain the macabre preoccupations of Old World folklore – hacked-up spouses, kidnapped siblings, wolves in the night – they approach those age-old scares with modern flare. The artist's style borrows its sinuous swoops from vintage animation and children's books, while each story goads those simple sources into serving mature, troubling themes. The feminist fables of Angela Carter are an obvious touchstone for Carroll's tales, which mostly star young women who learn the strange customs that govern the world outside their homes. But Carroll makes the woods of the title entirely her own, a metaphor for the danger that lurks and snarls outside the door, but which entices us outside, nevertheless.

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Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson, Volume 1

By Patrick Rosenkranz, Fantagraphics, 224 pages, $40.50

"Somebody's got to draw it." This was S. Clay Wilson's philosophy toward his often unspeakably transgressive comics, the first and still shocking examples of which are collected in Pirates in the Heartland. A central figure in the late sixties underground comix scene – and now ailing, after a lifetime of hell-raising – Wilson became infamous for his chaotic stories and tableaux, thronged with fleshy humanity. In them, warring factions of bikers, babes, demons, and pirates all punch, slice, and squish each other, while often deliriously in flagrante. Never content simply to break taboos, the artist preferred instead to pulverize them with gleeful, single-minded disdain. This purity of purpose can make Wilson's art tough to take, and the text of this volume – penned by Rosenkranz, an invaluable historian – is given over to biography, rather than any argument about the work itself. But for those readers with sufficiently girded loins, Wilson's art – and renegade life-story – will prove a source of unhealthy, vital fascination.

Benson's Cuckoos

By Anouk Ricard, translated by Helge Dascher, Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $19.95

At first, Benson's Cuckoos doesn't stray far from the usual template of workplace comedy. In Anouk Ricard's gently bonkers satire, an everyman wage-earner endures the indignities foisted upon him by his zany boss and downtrodden co-workers. Gradually, though, the French cartoonist's take on these conventions reveals a more mischievous side. At the titular small business, Richard, newly hired, watches on as incompetence and pettiness bring any work to a halt (the company's pet fish floats dead in its tank; employees are scolded for having no rhythm). Soon it gets worse, as workers suffer dizzy spells, get shot, and go missing – all while Richard's cuckoo colleagues whisper together, in silly and stand-offish worlds of their own. Emphasizing the absurdity of these characters, the artist renders them as primary-coloured doodles – big-headed funny animals, dressed in business-casual attire. This skillfully stylized crudity serves Ricard's humour well, just barely cushioning her pointed jabs at the insular, dysfunctional families we construct at work.

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