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Published 5/9/2007

Fantagraphics' new bestiary of imaginary creatures is beautifully illustrated and handsomely produced, a credit to any art lover's library. But for all its coffee table pretentions, Beasts! ($28.95, 200 pp.) will feel strangely familiar to nerds of a certain age. It is, after all, just an elaborate update of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.

Ah, the Monster Manual. As a teen in the early '80s, I'd pore over that tome, absorbing its arcane "knowledge" of supernatural entities and subterranean horrors until I knew exactly how to attack a pack of troglodytes — or just how quickly I was going to die if I bumped into a mindflayer. The thrill wasn't just in knowing this useless stuff — it was the dorky joy of knowing useless stuff that "outsiders" didn't know. That this pseudo-info came packaged in an important-looking, hardcover textbook made it that much sweeter.

Edited by designer and artist Jacob Covey, Beasts! captures that adolescent thrill perfectly, and trumps its predecessor with a higher level of craft and a generous dose of irony. With its olive-green hardcover, gold-foil accents and gilt-edged pages, and packed with original illustrations by 90 of the hippest cartoonists and pop artistses working, Beasts! looks equally at home displayed in a museum gift shop or propped against a skull on a wizard's workbench. Each creepy-crawly, from the Egyptian hellhound Amermait to the vampiric Yara-ma-yha-who of Australia, is described in florid, pseudo-scientific language that might convince you that just maybe you're actually learning something as you read it. The art ranges from cute and cartoony to gothic and grim, with occasional stylistic nods to artists as diverse as Frank Frazetta and Howard Finster. It's a book for sophisticated nerds; if you must spill a beverage on it at your next basement gaming session, make it a double espresso instead of the usual Mountain Dew.

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