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GRAPHIC NOVELS

Capturing the passion of music and war

There's been such a flood of graphic novels that I strain to get the thread through the eye of the needle in my wrap-ups, let alone come up with an appropriate metaphor. This summer, the thread was the movies. This time, the hook is musical: The CD insert to ''Suspicious Activity?," the fourth offering from The Bad Plus (Columbia), a lunkhead-cool jazz trio of Midwestern origin, sports deadpan-wacky graphic-novel-style business jokes by antiwar graphic artist David Rees. ''Weird Tales of the Ramones," a four-CD box set (Rhino), boasts work by 26 artists, including Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, hysterically raunchy Briton Lorna Miller, and Johnny Ryan, father of gross-out antiheroine Blecky Yuckerella. Funny stuff, and a perfect fit for the group. Good listening, too.

Two books vamping on Elvis Presley extend the musical note: Rich Koslowski's ''The King" (Top Shelf, 264 pp., $19.95) and D. A. Morello's ''The Ballad of Outlaw Elvis and Other Songs of Freedom" (self-published and unpaginated, $9; e-mail dave@adozeneggs.com for more information).

Koslowski's layered mystery suggests the late Elvis. Bloated and arrogant and charismatic, the King is an Elvis imitator (could he be the real McCoy?) with the original's allure. Trying to solve the puzzle is Paul Erfurt, a discredited tabloid reporter eager to reestablish his credibility through an exposé of this pretender. Koslowski's style is realistic, his plot gripping. Who in the King's entourage is out to get him? Koslowski's art, in elegant shades of blue, black, and white, thickens the plot, making ''The King" an intriguing inquiry into, and perpetuation of, myth.

Morello's is a shorter, more overtly poetic, and not altogether disciplined work. Striking, too, above all. It conflates such mythical icons as a young, rocking Elvis, Dylans Bob and Thomas, and Woody Guthrie into a heavily Dylan-influenced, psychedelic ballad replete with gorgeous woodcuts, one to a page. Edward Gorey's influence is clear; so is Ben Shahn's. Ruggedness and innocence coexist here to striking effect, suggesting Morello is due a wider audience.

On a nonmusical plane, several serious works have been released recently. Among the best are Steve Mumford's ''Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq" (Drawn & Quarterly, 244 pp., $34.95) and Joe Kubert's ''Jew Gangster: A Father's Admonition" (iBooks, 143 pp., $22.95).

Mumford's book is a full-color diary documenting four trips the New York artist made to Iraq between spring 2003 and fall 2004. The art is vigorous, impressionistic, and realistic. Like Mumford's writing, it's neutral, too -- at least on the surface. But between the lines and bleeding through the color washes are passion and sorrow. There are no heroes in Mumford's meticulous depictions of this ever-shifting, treacherous zone. There are, however, honesty and ambiguity and a reassuring sense of normalcy. Mumford's watercolors capture the temperature of the place, the hot light that gives Iraq its tension and danger. What's valuable is the way Mumford gives voice to Iraqi artists, to Iraqi kids playing, to what passes for regularity in a country that, he suggests, is inappropriately dramatized by mainstream media.

Kubert 's ''Jew Gangster" is a Depression crime novel. It's black and white, like movies of that period, and it's cautionary, like James T. Farrell's ''Studs Lonigan" trilogy. The hero is first-generation American Ruby, a smart kid determined not to work for peanuts like his grindingly honest father. Ruby quits school and goes to work for Monk Shapiro, a charismatic goon who does dirty deeds for the mysterious Big Guy. Ruby becomes a stylish, moneymaking thug who dutifully helps support his needy family. This ''Jew Gangster" son, who joins in when Monk busts unions and chops a finger off a storekeeper late on his loan, appalls his father. Eventually, Ruby has an affair with Monk's moll; Monk repays the favor by raping Ruby's sister, Rifke. Kubert's gritty, motile style, heavily influenced by Warner Brothers crime movies of the '30s, moves the narrative along brilliantly, and the world Kubert creates is far more complex than it appears at first blush. In a sense, this is a domestic prequel to ''Yossel," Kubert's 2003 graphic novel about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Like Joe Sacco's work, Kubert's ''Jew Gangster" is hard-hitting and kinetic; Kubert, who has worked on such superhero characters as Sergeant Rock, Hawkman, and Batman, is particularly good at creating the wordless frame and making palpable the blood and guts spilled during a fight.

A quickie, a subversive one: ''Juicy Mother" (Soft Skull, 86 pp., $10.95) is an anthology of short, comic stories for ''discerning homosexuals, uppity ladies, fierce people of color and all their friends," according to editor Jennifer Camper. It's what underground comics used to be, but 30, even 40 years ago, when they first staked claim to that moniker, they were largely about drugs and were sexist: Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Spain Rodriguez were dissident, but they made women subordinate to their piratical, hyperbolic men, and gay men weren't even (allowed) in the picture. Lesbians and homosexuals populate these electric pages, and the scenes can be disturbing. Enlightening, too. Check out Serena Pillai's ''The Italian Cousin," the story of a torrid, transatlantic affair that scrambles gender and family lines to unsettling effect. Pillai's drawings put you in the middle of unexpected pictures, and her love story is unusually close, if not quite claustrophobic (liberating, too, at the same time). Also in ''Juicy Mother," join ''The Party." This sweaty collaboration transmits the ''spiritual resonance of disco," a field that's chronically underexplored. It also depicts a party you might wish you could join, depending on your particular bent.

Carlo Wolff regularly reviews graphic novels for the Globe.

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