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Strip teases 

Comic strips -- the ones in daily newspapers -- tend to suck. Every day countless gallons of ink are spilled on an outdated altar of pointlessness. No wonder "Bloom County" author Berkeley Breathed dismissed the medium as the "buggy whips of this millennium."

Two recent softcover releases from Pantheon give two very different looks at the art form and offer hope that all isn't quite yet lost. Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz may sound like just another retrospective of the Charlie Brown gang, but the book actually offers an often fascinating history of how the artist revolutionized comics.

Schulz's original drawings are rendered in color photographs by Geoff Spear, with images that retain the printing splats, tape marks and yellowing paper of an actual archive, as well as shots of the artist's studio and glimpses into his pre-"Peanuts" work. Though it's nigh impossible for us to think of Charlie Brown as the least bit edgy, he's become so much of an American icon, the book helps put the round-headed kite-flyer into proper context.

By contrast, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District can come off as too edgy. Ben Katchor's moody, ink-and-wash strips have appeared in publications like The Forward and Metropolis magazine for more than a decade, and this collection of his works premiered in 2000.

Though billed as a graphic novel, The Beauty Supply District follows only a loose narrative. It gives snapshot takes of an impossible New York-like city, where anonymous workers shuffle past buildings such as the Municipal Birthmark Registry or the Heating Pad Institute. Katchor seems obsessed with the tedious details of workaday city dwellers who barely glance up at the forthcoming Hymen Plaza and never ponder the seemingly random numbers stenciled on every lamppost.

With tongue planted in cheek, and a healthy appetite for the absurd, The Beauty Supply District definitely pushes the envelope of the comic-strip medium. Though his moments of wit can sometimes get lost among several humdrum panels, Katchor's commentary on urban life feels like a welcome reprieve from the suckfest of the daily funny pages.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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