James Sturm's America (Sturm): This sizable graphic novel actually collects three separate works by writer/artist James Sturm, each exploring a different (depressing) aspect of Americana.
"The Revival" is the most hopeful of the three pieces, despite its macabre twists and unfortunate setting in a 19th-century religious gathering. "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight" takes place at the end of the 19th-century, and tells the story of the grim happenings in a washed-out gold mine. It is entirely bleak and populated with thoroughly reprehensible characters.
"The Golem's Mighty Swing", a look into a 1920's Jewish, barnstorming baseball team, is the best of the collection. The team - "The Stars of David" - is one of life's underdogs. Although terrific on the field, they're sleeping in the bus, playing multiple games every day, villianized by the local press, and constantly struggling to make ends meet. And, as the team's clean-up hitter likes to point out, they're still better off than all the Negro League teams of the era.
Although "Golem" shows a few flashes of hope (there's one surprisingly touching scene involving non-bitter small-town folks and a crate of apples), it is largely a story about a group of people, desperately struggling to do something they love, but slowly being ground down by reality.
This is a terrific collection - especially the must-read "Golem" - which goes far in demonstrating how graphic novels can tell difficult and important stories.
The Vinyl Underground: Pretty Dead Things (Spencer / Gane):The second volume of this series is substantially less impressive than the initial collection, Watching the Detectives. Pretty Dead Things contains two major storylines: a series of William Blake-inspired killings haunt London and protagonist Morrison Shepherd is haunted by creepy dreams and a mysterious doppleganger.
The Blake story was good - a suitable follow-up to the mystery in the first collection - but the literary twists were largely presented in an ostentatious, unsubtle way which I found both hasty and pretentious. The doppleganger plot was an epic story, crammed into a few short pages. Although of critical importance to the team - and to the city of London (terrorist attacks?!) - it was presented in such a compact, hurried way that I felt like I was skimming a much larger volume.
I'll stick with this series through a third collection, but only in the hope that Si Spencer returns to the more leisurely formula that initially worked so well.
John Constantine, Hellblazer: Setting Sun (Ellis / Various):This is how you do an occult detective. Setting Sun is essentially a collection of short stories, each featuring the grimmest and greatest occult detective of them all, John Constantine.
Setting Sun reads a bit like Global Frequency, or even Warren Ellis's blog. It is clear that something attracted his attention, he wrote a quick story about it, and then he moved on. This is not meant to belittle the effort involved in Setting Sun - Ellis, aided by an all-star cast of artists, nails the tone and feel of the dirty, urban, modern John Constantine perfectly. And his excursions down into mystical London are fascinating, from start to finish.
Unlike Global Frequency, however, there's no sense of heroism. John Constantine isn't a good guy - he cleans up messes to help his friends (or make a buck) - but Ellis writes him as just another urban predator, doing what it takes to get along. Constantine is happy to get his hands messy (very, very messy - in the case of the Japanese torturer) to right a wrong, but he's also just as happy to go 'fuck a nun' or drive an investigative reporter to insanity with stories about the true Royal line. (Lizard people!)
This is an excellent stand-alone volume - nothing happens in here that impacts the rest of the Constantine mythos and, as a short story collection, it is completely devoid of meta-narrative. I'd recommend it as the best introductory volume to the sprawling Hellblazer series. Constantine is poking a stick into the dark heart of London and seeing what comes crawling out - if a new reader doesn't like that, the rest of the series will be completely wasted.