On one hand, there's something slightly uncool about seeing comics that have long been available for free on the ''Matrix'' website now being published for real cash money. On the other hand, have you ever been e-mailed a JPEG that was just so entertaining you had to print it out? Same idea. And certainly, the dozen short stories collected in ''The Matrix Comics: Volume One'' deserve glossy, hard-copy treatment. Just as the recent ''Animatrix'' DVD seems to be more about the Wachowski brothers' love of their concept than of a buck, so too does this material have a creatively jazzed feel.
Getting back to their comics-writing roots, the Wachowskis team with detail-fixated artist Geof Darrow, one of the films' conceptual designers, on the anthology's opener: a back-story look at a robo-butler's bloody revolt and subsequent day in court. Another standout is a characteristically offbeat tale from writer-artist Paul Chadwick (''Concrete'') chronicling humanity's life-affirming struggle to grow wheat for bread, scorched earth and mechanized oppressors be damned. And acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (''The Sandman'') contributes an illustrated prose piece that imagines machines dominating not only the planet but a nice little chunk of outer space as well.
Some of the material is stronger artistically than conceptually and vice versa, but there isn't a dud in the bunch. Pretty impressive, considering how comics publishers have historically given movie tie-ins the ugly-stepkid treatment. In this case, you can actually be glad that ''The Matrix'' has you.