EW's editor-at-large recommends a Jack Kirby collection, a fascinating manga series, and more

By Ken Tucker
Updated July 10, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

A special all-comics edition!

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 1
In the ’70s, longtime Marvel Comics artist Kirby (co-creator with Stan Lee of The Fantastic Four, Thor, The Silver Surfer, and many others) defected to rival DC Comics, which had promised him well-deserved creative control but hadn’t quite anticipated what a font of creativity he was. Instead of merely applying his uniquely blocky yet lyrical style to Superman and others in the DC stable, Kirby invented a whole new set of characters in what became known as the ”Fourth World” universe. These planet-exploding, counterculture-influenced group of heroes and villains played out a fresh mythologies in the new comics series The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle, as well as an oddly chosen old one: Superman’s Friend Jimmy Olsen, which transformed the bow-tied, squaresville kid into an intergalactic adventurer. This volume collects the best of the Fourth World stories as they appeared across all these various books, usefully arranging them in an order that reads like one vast tale. It’s a tie-in with DC’s current weekly comic ”event,” Countdown, in which some of the Fourth World characters and Olsen play a major role. But you can read this book just for its own richly complex and time-capsule-funny pleasure. Volume 2 comes out in August; can’t wait.

The Fun Never Stops! An Anthology of Comic Art 1991-2006
By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics)
Friedman’s liver-spots-‘n’-wrinkles style of cartoon realism is completely mesmerizing — open up this book and you won’t be able to stop looking at his utterly original take on celebrity, which is equal parts scholarship, satire, contempt, and love. (Friedman has no use for nostalgia or irony, which also makes him invaluably rare.) Whether imagining what Johnny Carson’s life would have been like had he not landed The Tonight Show (ventriloquist Willie Tyler and Lester got the gig instead), or depicting the true obsessions of literary greats (I thought I was the only person who remembered that Vladimir Nabokov thought Dennis the Menace had a hot mom), Friedman keeps the artistry and laugh quotient remarkably high. (Full disclosure: Friedman illustrated the jacket of a book I wrote, and I couldn’t be prouder.)

Death Note Vol. 1
Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata (Viz Media)
I was turned on to this Japanese manga series by a stray remark the first-class comics critic Douglas Wolk made on his blog about it — anytime anyone mentions an obsession, I have to try it out for myself. In this case, I’m hooked: High school student Light comes into possession of a notebook, the Death Note, accidentally dropped on Earth by a ”death god.” By following its intricate but quite logical instructions, Light can kill anyone he wants — and decides to use the Death Note for ”good,” ridding the world of the worst criminals. Morally complex to say the least, and drawn with slashing lyricism, Death Note is a supernatural thriller: The cops, including Light’s law-enforcer father, are desperate to find this serial criminal-killer. I’ve only read the first volume — there are at least a dozen in the series, as well as anime versions on DVD — so I have a lot of grim amusement ahead of me. Sorry, Harry Potter, this is my summer fantasy reading.

Meanwhile? A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon
By R.C. Harvey (Fantagraphics)
I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve read every word of this 952-page, generously illustrated biography of one of the greatest newspaper comic-strip artists ever (hey, I just received it last week!). But simply by dipping in and out of this beautifully designed, obsessively researched book, I know it’s going to be a constant pleasure throughout the rest of the summer. Artist-writer Caniff (1907-1988) was the John Ford of comics — creator of American icons (Air Force pilot Steve Canyon; globe-trotting adventurer Terry Lee), delineator of vast landscapes against which tales of macho heroism and femme-fatale seduction played out thrillingly. Veteran comics historian Harvey manages to make the behind-the-scenes stuff (the book doubles as a history of newspaper syndication practices, for instance) as exciting as Terry fending off the advances of the pin-uppable Dragon Lady.

King-Cat Classix
By John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly)
What started out as a self-published mini-comic ”zine” has grown into this handsomely designed 384-page anthology of artist-writer Porcellino’s intentionally simple drawings, largely autobiographical tales and renderings of dreams. The diaristic element of Porcellino’s work is particularly compelling. On page 125, read ”Picture This: A True Work Story Written at Lunch at Big Ray’s, Drawn in 10 Minutes During Break Monday 3/18/1991,” a tale of paycheck-job monotony and the way a few of the millions of people stuck in such employment find small pleasures in singing, joking, and commiserating. Porcellino is a master at miniature poignance.