Monday, May 24, 2010

Young Lions: If I said I hated it, I'd be lyin'

Elsewhere: I wrote about the first part of the Fringe season finale over at The Factual Opinion.  Part two, coming up next.

Webcomics links: I thought the latest installment of Gabrielle Bell's Lucky was especially good. I particularly liked this panel,with its dripping shadows of anxiety:

I also thought this strip by Daryl Cunningham about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the guy behind the anti-vaccination scam of recent years.  His non-fiction, medical-themed comics are always good.

And in a somewhat webcomic-related link, here's the site for Regular People, an animated short film that Colleen Frakes (Woman King, Tragic Relief, etc.) worked on, which you can donate to and receive fabulous rewards, if you like.

Young Lions
By Blaise Larmee

I'm not sure what to make of this book, but I do find it kind of fascinating, and interesting to try to figure out what creator Blaise Larmee is going for.  He seems to be an emerging comics talent, having been awarded the Xeric Grant for this book and maintaining a presence online, but his style is like nothing I've ever seen before, a sort of dreamlike, minimalistic look that doesn't seem to have much of a plot, seeming instead to be an attempt to capture a certain youthful feeling of ennui, a sense of being ready to take over the world, but not knowing what to do with that energy.  It's strange and unintuitive, but certainly pretty to look at.

What plot there is in the book follows a trio of kids who are members of a "conceptual art group", although what this means is never really explained.  One of them idolizes Yoko Ono, and another seems to be the leader, performing seance-like rituals at parties, but they don't seem to be out to accomplish much of anything or gain any recognition.  In fact, the main portion of the book sees them hook up with a fourth "member" and travel with her to spend time in a remote house in a secluded forest, and much of the time they just sit around, wandering through the trees and swimming in a lake.  And that's about all there is to it, with little in the way of development or conflict, but a sense of boredom and uncertainty about the future pervading.

So if plot isn't the draw, it must be the art, right?  That does seem to be the case, although Larmee has a non-showy style that seems to be trying to appear amateurish and half-finished.  It's a deliberately lo-fi approach, with every page looking like it has been photocopied multiple times, erased lines often visible, and the actual linework seeming like incomplete pencil drawings from a sketchbook:

Backgrounds are often nonexistent, leaving the characters stranded in an empty white void, and word balloons, which sometimes indicate a speaker but usually just hang in the air unattributed, fill with hand-lettered words that often flow in strange rhythms that don't always sync up from panel to panel, or just feature the lyrics of music that the characters are listening to/singing along with.  It all seems like a purposeful attempt to look unfinished, reflecting the characters' state of mind, but there's more to it than a bunch of scrawled sketches; the moments of beauty that come through are all the more powerful because of this approach.

That's what's really impressive here; Larmee fills pages with little more than characters lounging around contemplating life, and while most of these images aren't fully rendered, the occasional moment in which a true-to-life gesture or a wisp of tossed hair seems captured from life is breathtaking:

As is the rare panel in which background details get filled in, making for an eye-catching contrast to the minimalistic blankness of the rest of the book:

The characters themselves even seem to be the embodiments of this approach; Larmee stylizes them to an extent, giving them heads a bit too large for their bodies, making them look like children even younger than they actually are supposed to be, even drawing "blush" circles on one boy's cheeks like he's a Taiyo Matsumoto character, possibly intending to emphasize the fragility of youth, or maybe just ensuring readers see the characters as younger than themselves, no matter their age.  They don't quite seem real, except for when they suddenly do, making those moments all the more affecting.

In the end, I'm still not sure about this book, but I'll admit that it is a fascinating one, taking an unusual approach to storytelling (if you can call it that) and art, ending up being something that, if one is in the right frame of mind, can wash over you and leave a certain emotional stamp, a dredged up memory of a feeling of a moment that might or might not have actually taken place.  It's an ethereal experience, but one that doesn't immediately dissipate.  Larmee definitely has something to him, so hopefully this is just the beginning of what he has to offer.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Today's letter is apparently M

One link: I really like this short Wolverine story by Faith Erin Hicks.  It seems funny because of Wolverine complaining about people eating his eggs, but I like the way it demonstrates the small annoyances of living in a house with a bunch of young, obnoxious kids, along with having to fight ninjas everywhere he goes.  I just hope this isn't the story in this week's Girl Comics.  Not because it isn't fit for print, but because that would mean I only get one Hicks story this week instead of two.

Here's some (hopefully) shorter looks at stuff I read recently:

Market Day
By James Sturm

There's a profound sadness to this story of an old-world Jewish rug-maker who is in the process of getting forced out of his artisanal dedication to excellence by the encroaching modernity of mass production and increased trade.  One could read all sorts of commentary on current economics (or those of the past few centuries, probably), but I think it works really well as a character piece, a look at a religious man trying to express himself through his work and being dealt a harsh blow through no fault of his own.  While James Sturm's writing is wonderful, full of realistic interior narration that seems to change its mood along with the coming and going of the light throughout the course of the day the comprises the story, the art is what really works, keeping the characters relatably simplistic but fleshing out their world with lots of background detail.  The colors are especially exquisite, giving a dusty texture to the market and a green placidity to the fields, and the respectively hopeful and gloomy shadows of dawn and dusk lending weight and resonance to the character's plight.  This is a very good comic, if not one that will have readers celebrating the joy of life afterward.


Mesmo Delivery
By Rafael Grampa

I've described Rafael Grampa as a cross between Geof Darrow and Frank Quitely before, but that's not telling the whole story.  He does have Darrow's exhaustive detail and Quitely's fluid motion, but there's also a bit of Paul Pope's expressively squiggly (yet completely controlled) linework, Anders Nilsen's stippled textures, and probably plenty of other influences.  Grampa has internalized this mixture of styles, however, and made it his own particular brand of comics awesomeness; he's not just aping what seems cool, but instead taking the learned techniques and creating something new and vibrant with them, making for a violent, action-packed story that's seems to transfer the specificity of his vision to the page.  He gets to add some of his own ideas to the fray as well, like the way the lyrics of Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation" swirl and weave their way through a character's dramatic entrance:

The story? It's about a dumb bruiser of a truck driver and his aging Elvis-impersonator partner stopping at a dive along their journey and getting in a fight with the locals, with some twists and turns along the way, but that all seems beside the point; the book is really about Grampa showing off his chops, crafting memorable depictions of the characters and filling pages with created imagery, from the signs and knick-knacks in the background of the diner to the dusty, deserted landscape surrounding it.  And that action!  Holy moley, one can spend inordinate amounts of time examining the frozen motions of bloody knuckles and flashing knives, the flying bodies and expressions of pain or panic on faces, the blood spurting everywhere.  It's glorious, beautiful stuff, like nothing ever seen before, but hopefully the type of thing we'll be able to witness a great deal more to come.

Mysterius the Unfathomable
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Tom Fowler

As good a writer of superheroes as Jeff Parker is, it's nice to see him branching out from the mainstream, spandex-clad corner of the comics world and doing something wholly original and creator-owned.  Teamed with Mad artist Tom Fowler, he's come up with something special here, following the adventures of a stage magician who is actually a powerful, immortal sorceror as he deals with a variety of supernatural threats, both to himself and the world at large.  That's a decent enough concept on its own, but Parker doesn't just have him meet a couple ghosts or solve a simple mystery; instead, he comes up with some killer ideas for him to battle, including a druidic cult leader with intentions toward godhood via some analogues to notorious real-life events, and a Dr. Seuss-ian children's book author whose rhymes are actually used to summon demonic creatures.  Those are both pretty great concepts, and Parker uses them to full effect, interweaving the threats as Mysterius and his assistant Delfi, the Dr. Who-style companion who acts as the requisite audience stand-in and sounding board for exposition, bounce between crazier and crazier events, pausing only to manage some character development that only seems slightly tacked on.  Mysterius is a self-centered bastard, but his jerkiness is mostly underplayed, making a somewhat melodramatic confrontation between the two leads at the climax seem a bit out of place, but it's not a dealbreaker in any way, only a slight hiccup on a wonderfully scenic trip.

And yes, the scenery is to die for; Tom Fowler's caricture-style art is expressive and fun, full of characters in motion and panel layouts that get all curvy and crooked when things turn weird, scenes filled out in a way that makes sense spatially even if everything is more cartoony and exaggerated than in the real world.  The characters are beautifully defined, all rounded bodies atop spindly legs, bulging potbellies on the men and big, shapely rear ends on the women.  But the monsters are where he really excels, coming up with some freakishly weird and gross creatures that really do seem like twisted, malevolent versions of the goons that show up in kids' books, if not specifically those of Dr. Seuss.  The coloring, by Dave McCaig, really helps to sell this, giving their hellish dimension a bright, unearthly hue, while also choosing the perfect shade of washed-out grey for a different, more barren circle of hell, and some murderous reds and oranges for the final battle.  It's a really nice-looking book; when Parker is paired with the right artist, he really makes the best of the collaboration, with the two of them bringing out the best in each other.  This is a fun, scary, exciting, ambitious book, and hopefully it's only the first volume in a continuing series, since while one volume is fun, more of these characters and these sorts of stories from Parker and Fowler would be quite welcome.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wilson: No wonder he was so grumpy at Dennis

By Daniel Clowes

Interestingly, in this latest graphic novel from Daniel Clowes, he seems to be attempting to explore the "Clowes character" archetype, or at least present it in an unfiltered manner, without softening it with any sort of lovability.  No, the titular fellow is a pure bastard, opinionated, cantankerous, and ready to offer his opinion on everything he sees, while ignoring any faults of his own.  He's a middle-aged fellow, divorced, jobless, with apparently his only friend in the world (aside from an unnamed person he occasionally talks to on the phone) being his dog.  In the first panel of the book, he claims to love people, but almost immediately yells at somebody for talking too much.  He then goes on to profess interest in his fellow man, the city he lives in, and his parents and their history, only to turn around and complain about something else.  He looks down on everyone he meets, always finding something to ridicule, whether it's working on a laptop at a coffee shop, using abbreviations like "I.T.", or simply not making a fuss over the cuteness of his dog.  It's almost ridiculous how much Clowes paints him as a pathetic asshole, as if he's trying to see if it's possible to craft a completely unlikeable character and still see if he can get readers on his side.

The misanthropy of his main character is only one of the barriers that Clowes sets up for himself; he adds another by making each page of the book its own standalone strip, a moment in Wilson's life that is more often than not punctuated by a punchline.  The pacing of strips is quite regular in its Charles Schulz-like rhythm, only instead of ending strips with Snoopy saying "Bleah!", we get Wilson shouting obscenities at someone.  And to make things more interesting, each strip is presented in a different art style, cycling through Clowes' various techniques, including ugly, pimple-faced "realism"; noir-ish shadows; big-nose cartooniness; minimalistic, Ivan Brunetti-like figures, monochromatic simplicity; brightly-colored cutesiness; and so on.  It's kind of fascinating to see what comes next on each page, but it's not arbitrary; the styles match the tone of each individual moment, using newspaper-strip-like repeated imagery for scenes in which Wilson stays in one spot delivering a hateful monologue, then switching to a more colorful, fluid look for a strip requiring movement, or close-up images of awkward faces for an emotional scene.  It's a good way to keep the story interesting when following a mostly unchanging character.

That's not to say that Clowes doesn't give Wilson anything to do; instead, we see him go through something of a mid-life crisis, as he flies cross-country for his father's funeral, decides to seek out his ex-wife, and ends up finding out he has a daughter he never knew about (Spoiler? The back-cover blurb describes him as a father, so it's not that big of a surprise).  Through all this, he stays the same, or at least maintains the same outward appearance, always finding something to complain about and refusing to budge when his beliefs are challenged.  Clowes still manages to convey some inner development though, which is especially impressive given the irregular art.  By the end of the book, Wilson is an old man, and while he's still a cranky bastard, he seems to have softened somehow, if only in the desperation for some sort of human connection that comes through in his eyes.

Is this all simply an exercise for Clowes, a way to set up interesting artistic hurdles and see if he can clear them? Perhaps, but it still ends up being an interesting character exploration, a challenging way to look at somebody who is so external and see if it is possible to gain some insight into his thoughts and emotions and make people empathize with him.  And the amazing thing is, he accomplishes just that, giving a simplistic misanthrope a rich life and making readers care about what happens to him, or at least want to go along for the ride.  As with so many of Clowes' characters, we might not want to meet them in real life, but we can't tear our eyes away from their on-page adventures, and we feel like we've met somebody real afterward, no matter how ridiculous and unlikeable they might seem at the outset.  It's a strange alchemy that Clowes wields, but he's honed it to perfection over the years, so we'd best just let him work his magic and come away satisfied.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Best American Comics 2009: Let the yearly bitching ritual (bitchual?) begin

Some links: The latest issue of MySpace Dark Horse Presents appears to be kid-targeted, or at least "all ages". It's especially notable for this excellent Andi Watson strip, but Scott Morse has a cute one too.

Here's what appears to be a good source of writing-about-comics: Sequential Pulp, a Canadian print magazine that's also available in PDF form.  I don't know how user-friendly that format is, but it looks like it's got some good contents.  Worth checking out, I'd say.

The Best American Comics 2009
Edited by Charles Burns
Series Editors: Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

This may be obvious by this point, but the title of this series is something of a misnomer.  Rather than being a collection of the best comics which came out in 2009, it's actually the volume of the series that came out in that year, with the actual window of eligibility being between September 2007 and August 2008.  That makes for an oddly backward-looking focus for what seems at first glance to be an up-to-date book.  That's the nature of the beast though, with this being an entry in publisher Houghton Mifflin's line of annual thematic collections.  What's even funnier though, is that the "best" part of the title isn't really true either.  Sure, one would say that's all subjective anyway, but even the preface by series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden describes the volume as not the "best" comics, but "a personally curated selection of top-notch work that reflects just some of the excellence and variety that exists out there".  That's all well and good, but the title still says "best", so I think it's fair to judge whether the work chosen really deserves to be placed on this pedestal, and as with every entry in this series, there are some selections that really do not deserve that honor. For one thing, the line about variety is contradicted in guest editor Charles Burns' introduction, when he states that twenty of the thirty-six pieces in this book are by creators who have had their work published in previous volumes of the series.  The breadth and depth of the work being produced in the comics field these days should minimize these repeat honorees, but that doesn't seem to be the case; instead, a few recognizable names get honored again and again, with quality comics being passed over.  But, to reiterate, that's also the nature of the beast; familiarity apparently doesn't breed contempt in the world of comics.

Anyway, as I've done in previous years, I think it's an interesting exercise (for me at least' others may just find it tiresome) to look at each entry and determine whether it really is one of the best comics of the year (or, to hew to the editors' caveats, a work that deserves to be spotlighted as an outstanding and significant work).  Engage!

"Shh!", "Ringtones", "The Argument", and "Hope Gropius"
By Tim Hensley

These short strips from Hensley's Wally Gropius series are scattered throughout the volume, with the first and longest one kicking things off.  The series is a satire of Archie-style teen comics, using an interesting mix of cartoony art that resembles old-school animation and bits of modern society and technology.  But it's weirder than that, with an odd rhythm that sees characters bounce around panels while spouting flowery,  non-sequitur-filled language, making little sense but conveying an unsettling feeling of anarchy, and often engaging is rather unsettling acts of sex and violence.  There are plenty of background (and foreground) gags, with an especially notable one seeing a fantasy of Wally's girlfriend Jillian singing the national anthem at a sports game while dressed as an Abu Ghraib prisoner:

It's strange stuff, but it's certainly fascinating, and when the book collecting the series is released, it should be a mind-bending experience.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes; this is exactly the sort of thing that should be collected in this series.

"Justin M. Damiano"
By Daniel Clowes

This short comic was a piece Clowes contributed to the Zadie Smith-edited anthology The Book of Other People, which collected stories about characters invented by the authors (i.e. "fiction"), and while at first glance, it seems to be another example of Clowes depicting a hateful hipster asshole, it ends up being a rather fascinating portrayal of its title character, a film critic who doesn't seem to like anything.  He attends a press screening and junket for an independent film that he seems to hate, but when the director is informed of a piece that he wrote several years ago (when he was "young and stupid" as he says) praising the filmmaker as "the one great director of the nineties", he gets invited to actually interview him.  Another critic presses him to ask about a scene from another of the director's movies that he hated, and it turns out that it was completely different than Damiano had interpreted, with a meaning that was altered due to studio-enforced edits, a change that devastated the director.  This really seems to make Damiano stop and think, and reconsider that the hardened shell of cynicism he has grown, although, this being Clowes, he doesn't exactly make any dramatic life-changing decisions.  It's a nice bit of character exploration, with Clowes' usual fine art that makes talking heads and internal narration captions interesting and full of subdued expression.  Very nice.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, and not just because Clowes is one of the "stars" that always gets chosen for this series.

"Paul Revere and John Singleton-Copley in 'Artist Vs. Artisan'"
By Peter Bagge

This is one of the "Founding Fathers Funnies" strips that Bagge included in his Apocalypse Nerd series (and probably elsewhere), looking at some of those people who have been so celebrated by history that we don't really view them as people.  That's what makes them interesting; Bagge takes these recognizable names and treats them as real individuals, making for fascinating portraits that are still based in reality.  In this case, silversmith/political cartoonist/amateur dentist Revere meets with portrait painter Singleton-Copley, and they discuss their differing approaches to their work, whether they are artists or just tradesmen, and the revolutionary politics of the day.  It's an interesting conversation, and one that demonstrates the complexity of life in any era of history.  Plus, it's quite funny, full of Bagge's expressive, loose-limbed cartooning.  An entire book of these strips by Bagge would certainly be good reading.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Wow, three for three so far!

Strips from Underworld
By Kaz

Unless I'm mistaken, every volume of this series has contained selections from Kaz's alternative weekly strip, and they are all the goddamn same.  As amusing as they are, every strip sees low-class cartoon characters inhabit a filthy environment and make some statement about the pathetic nature of their lives.  The art is fine, with lots of grimy detail and a bunch of cartoony grotesquerie, but they don't say anything interesting, they don't demonstrate excellent storytelling, and they aren't showing any artistic growth.  Outside of Kaz being a respected cartoonist, it's hard to see why anyone would consider these strips to be so amazing; one starts to examine strips for deeper meaning, like this entry:

Is it meant to be a statement about the modest nature of its characters' desires (and thus, the simple desires of impoverished societal outcasts)?  Is the specific detail of the "after" image (the stacked cars, the graffiti, the barren, plantless ground, the nearby power lines) meant to evoke a sort of suburban poverty?  Or is it just a dumb joke about its characters being stupid?  I'm leaning toward the latter.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No. Let's get some fresh blood in here, please.  There must be some comic strip or webcomic that covers this sort of material better.  Tom the Dancing Bug? Perry Bible Fellowship? Hell, even Johnny Ryan's Blecky Yuckarella takes Kaz's style and makes it darker, more disturbing, and much, much funnier.

"Hillbillys 'R' Dumb"
By Doug Allen

Oh, come on.  How anyone can consider this the best American anything is beyond me.  Over two pages, some animal rednecks have a hootenanny by the side of the road, then some Yankee tourists stop their car to watch, and the hillbillies murder and eat them, then drive their car around recklessly (since they're drunk on moonshine) and run over one of their own.  And that's it.  I suppose one might find this funny, but the art is lackluster and not all that easy to follow, and while "white trash" might be the last acceptable group to ridicule, I don't see any humor in presenting them as drunken, murderous morons.  This is pretty awful.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  God, no.

"Why I Write Only About Myself..."
By Aline Kominsky-Crumb

A one-page comic by Robert Crumb's wife, this is a pretty stiffly-illustrated talking head strip in which Kominsky-Crumb narcissistically explains that she only makes autobiographic comics because she doesn't find anything else interesting.  Sure, it's a bit self-deprecating, admitting that she's vain and gossipy, but that doesn't make its attitude any more palatable.  And the ugly art doesn't help either.  This is kind of the epitome of the "boring indie autobio" comics that people like to complain about.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No, no matter who she's married to.

"Our Beloved Tape Dispenser"
By Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb

This, on the other hand, works as one of those stories about the authors' personal lives, perhaps because it sees the creator(s) actually interact with other people and reveal something interesting about themselves.  The couple explains how they acquired a huge, old-fashioned dispenser of packing tape, and Crumb being the anti-modernist that he is, it became a prized possession.  They even end up making a trip to visit the company that manufactures them, doing a little bit of journalistic work and describing the business, its history, and its place in American life both past and present.  The back-and-forth between Crumb and Kominsky-Crumb makes for a good conversational rhythm, and that gets emphasized through the art, which sees each cartoonist drawing the depictions of themselves (although it does look like Crumb drew all the backgrounds and all the other characters, and probably did the coloring which makes his wife's art look much nicer here than in her solo previous strip) and even lettering their own dialogue.  The back-and-forth is really well done, and seeing the couple collaborate to tell about an interesting bit of their life makes for a good anecdote, like a story told over dinner.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Sometimes those perpetual selectees are chosen for a reason.  Crumb is one of the all-time greats, and he managed to elevate his wife's sub-par work to his own level here.

"Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein"
By Michael Kupperman

Man, Kupperman is a goofball; this is some funny stuff.  He turns Mark Twain and Albert Einstein into a pair of buddy cops who go about nonsensical adventures committing acts of violence, all in the usual deadpan style of the comics in his Tales Designed to Thrizzle series.  The way he completely ignores the characters' real-life history, and even doesn't bother to distinguish which of them is which, is especially funny, and the fake ads in the margins of every page add to the weird, faux-old-timey nature of the comic.  Nobody would mistake this for an actual comic from decades past, but it's strange and straight-faced enough that one who happened upon it might wonder about its origins.  It's pretty sublime in its humor.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Probably.  There might be "better" comics out there, but when it comes to humor, Kupperman is certainly one of the best and most unique.

"Spirit Duplicator"
By Dan Zettwoch

Zettwoch is a singular comics creator, someone who uses the medium to its full extent, filling pages with information and goofy details.  He loves descriptive notes, arrows, diagrams, and little throwaway gags.  This story is presented as a series of illustrated church bulletins selected from a decades-long run, supposedly drawn by Zettwoch's uncle Darryl, with commentary provided by the "cartoonist", including descriptions of printing methods, historical tidbits, explanations of running jokes, and lots of other little details.  It's a fun little faux-history, and it even ends up being kind of poignant as Darryl retires.  It's a unique way to present a story, with the interesting personal details all being implied and in the background.  Zettwoch loves to experiment, and this one certainly paid off.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Zettwoch is one of the most exciting, creative young cartoonists currently making comics, and this is a good example of what he does well.

"The Company"
By Matt Broersma

In this excerpt from Broersma's graphic novel Insomnia, a TV producer gets fired, breaks things off with his mistress, finds that his wife has gone missing, and then gets strangely entangled with a childhood friend of hers that might or might not be lying about identity issues.  It's an interesting little bit of what appears to be a crime story, but it's hard to tell where it could be going from here.  That's not a complaint though; it's compelling enough to make one want to seek out the whole story to find out the whole story.  Broersma's clean line is pretty nice here, filling backgrounds with detail but leaving the characters inscrutably solemn-faced, inviting readers to speculate about inner emotional turmoil.  It's very nice work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure.  Excerpts from longer works can be tricky in books like this, but this one is near-perfect, giving just enough to entice readers into seeking out the whole thing.

Shortcomings (Excerpt)
By Adrian Tomine

Now, this doesn't seem fair.  At least one other volume of the Best American Comics series (the 2007 one) contained an excerpt from this story; in how many years was it one of the best comics?  Since the hardcover collection of the story came out in November 2007, it is eligible, but it doesn't seem right.  Anyway, the portion seen here is from the final third of the story, and it's good, although it might be a bit hard to follow if you haven't read the rest of the story.  It sees the protagonist, Ben Tanaka, pursue his estranged girlfriend across the country and confront her when he finds out she's dating someone else.  There are plenty of racial issues wrapped up in this, since he and his girlfriend are both Asian, and her new boyfriend is white, and this gives Tomine a chance to have Ben explicate his feelings at length to his friend and her girlfriend, in a way that does not endear him to readers.  As with the whole story, it's amusing, but ugly, so it's up to the reader to determine if they want to spend any time with such an insufferable asshole of a main character.  That's Tomine for you.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure, although it does seem like its inclusion is even more backward-looking than usual.

Over Easy (Excerpt)
By Mimi Pond

This is actually an excerpt from a graphic novel that Pond is serializing online, and it's quite good.  It's a semi-autobiographical story that sees its protagonist, a young art-school student named Margaret, happen into a small diner and get to know its staff, including a hippy-ish owner who enthuses about cilantro (a.k.a Chinese parsley) and trades her a free meal for a drawing of the establishment.  The blue-tinted artwork is quite lovely, and full of detail and expressive characters, with Pond really making the setting come to life and using some neat techniques, like having the words of a caption swirl around inside a cup of coffee.  It's a good little story, personal yet relatable, and one that encourages reading of the rest of the work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  It's good to see online comics included, especially ones that aren't of the usual "newspaper strip with dirty words" style.

"Portrait of the Artist As a Young %@&*!"
By Art Spiegelman

This is actually only an excerpt of the autobiographical strip that Spiegelman did to accompany the rerelease of his Breakdowns collection, and while it does include some interesting bits, it leaves out the best stuff, which saw him discover EC Comics as a child and get excited about the possibilities of the medium.  What we see here is limited to the anecdote about a childhood bully spitting on Spiegelman's mother, a memory about being scared of Alice in Wonderland, a sort of experimental thing about characters writing fiction versus nonfiction, and a page that repeats the imagery of the first scene with the coloring off-set and the captions and word balloons filled with a quote about art from Victor Shklovsky.  As a portion of the longer work, it doesn't really offer much of the richness of Spiegelman's story and memories, and since it only contains pieces here and there, it doesn't flow very well at all.  The full comic is a good one, but you wouldn't know it from what you see here.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No, at least not what we get here.  The full story is worth reading though, so don't let this fool you.

By Ron Rege, Jr.

This is actually an adaptation of a prose short story (or perhaps a chapter of a longer story?) by Lynda Barry, which makes it kind of a weird, secondhand bit of storytelling that might or might not make more sense if one had read the original work.  It's hard to tell what exactly happens here, what with Rege's confusing, backgroundless art, but apparently a couple kids come across a hippie, and then they smoke pot together.  And that's it.  I've never warmed to Rege's art, although I should probably try to read some of his longer stuff and see if I can discern what all the fuss is.  This short certainly doesn't endear him to me any more; it's impossible to tell the ages of the characters, since they're all drawn in the same rounded style, and while some of the postures and gestures seem naturalistic, the movements are hard to follow, so it's a struggle to tell what is going on.  The dialogue is odd and nonsensical as well, and while that might be Barry's fault rather than Rege's, it doesn't make the story any more readable.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Nope, not in the slightest.

"When I Was Eleven"
By Gabrielle Bell

This story seems like it might be autobiographical, but Bell's note in the "Contributors' Notes" section indicates that it is fictional.  Either way, it's quite good, following a young girl who likes summer camp so much that she decides to run away and live there in the off-season.  It's full of Bell's excellent character work, which comes out in both her expressive artwork (which conveys repressed emotion really well in an almost minimalist manner and evokes mood wonderfully through nicely-shaded settings) and her writing, especially the realistic narration.  Bell is a regular selectee for this series, and it's easy to see why, with her stories that manage to capture a time and place so well and fill them with compelling little stories about real-seeming people.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Bell's short stories are perfect for this type of collection, and she deserves every bit of recognition she gets.

Dal Tokyo
By Gary Panter

Panter is another cartoonist that I just don't get.  I don't understand the appeal of his rough, indistinct art, and from what I've seen, the storytelling is pretty inscrutable, with dialogue being nonsensical and any movement hard to follow.  These strips are apparently part of a series that runs in the Japanese magazine Riddim (wait, isn't this supposed to be the best American comics?), so maybe it makes more sense if more of it has been read, but I doubt it, and the right-to-left reading format (which comes from being published in Japan, but has to be discerned here, since there is no direction telling readers the correct way to read the comic) makes reading it even more unintuitive.  The story appears to be some sort of strange Western/post-apocalypse thing, with a couple wandering a wasteland riding either a scooter or a horse-like insect, and occasionally stopping to live in a hut, fight a giant slug, or encounter weird shit.  While some of the designs are interesting, like the barren landscape or that ugly slug, there's no real story to speak of, and the words that fill the word balloons don't make much sense either.  What a waste, both of the time it takes to read, and the space in this book that could have been filled with something readable.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No, although I'm sure many will disagree, for some artsy-fartsy reason or other.

"Disinfected Youth", "Gravel Migration", and "The Wide Riders"
By Ben Katchor

These three one-page strips, which come from Katchor's regular gig doing a monthly comic for Metropolis magazine, are funny in an oddly surreal way, taking a skewed view of modern American life through goofy ideas like a societal attack on bacteria that is countered through candy produced in a filthy factory, a man who obsesses over the gravel that slowly disappears from his driveway, and the psychological and geographical reasons that some men ride public transportation with their legs spread extra wide.  The stories are weird and deadpan, and the scratchy, pastel-colored art is perfect for containing their jittery energy.  It might take a particular sensibility to enjoy this sort of comic, but if it hits your sweet spot, it's pretty sublime.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  This is good, amusing work that sticks in the mind after reading it, prodding at the unconsidered ideas upon which society is based.  I need to read more of Katchor's work.

"Annoyed X Girlfriend", "Dad Coming Down the Cellar Stairs", "Sally in the Public Toilet", "Tree Pee", "Summer Shower", and "Church Miracle"
By Jerry Moriarty

These wordless single-page strips are richly painted and kind of interesting to try to follow, but they don't ultimately add up to much.  One sees a woman paint black scribbles over a painting of a young couple naked in bed; in another, a woman in a public restroom gets weirded out by a leg protruding under the wall from the next stall as somebody throws up; a third features two women running for shelter from the rain in a dilapidated house, with the second removing her shirt.  Maybe those are supposed to be jokes, but it's hard to tell; in fact, Moriarty's stiff figurework makes it difficult to follow the action at all.  I'm not sure if Moriarty is trying to tell a continuous story about one of these women, or if these are just isolated vignettes which might or might not be interesting to anybody.  The only one that I found amusing rather than head-scratching was the final one, in which a woman is praying in a church, and another woman comes in an kneels in front of her, with the final panel revealing a beam of light shining through a window directly on the second's rear end, as if God is checking out her ass.  That one managed to convey a simple concept clearly, but the others just sort of seem to sit there without much of a message or purpose.  Moriarty is supposed to be one of the greats of underground comics, but while he might have done good work in the past, I'm not seeing much to celebrate here.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No, although that may just because I prefer my comics to tell a clear story, or at least fill pages with something that seems worthwhile to spend the time to read.

"Mosfet Warlock and the Mechlin Men"

I wasn't especially enamored of Chris "CF" Forgues' Powr Mastrs when I first read it, but reading this story from that first volume of the series on its own, rather than surrounded by a bunch of seemingly-unrelated weirdness, it works pretty good as a bit of strange fantasy, and features some pretty cool artwork.  The story follows a magician who works to discover the secret of "transmut[ing] dead flesh into a living metal".  He experiments, and manages to turn some severed heads into "seeds" composed of electronic circuitry, which, when planted, grow into metal men that become his servants.  It's a pretty simple story, but the interesting thing here is Forgues' artwork, which uses ultra-thin lines to detail some incredible, bizarre, trippy scenes of Warlock experimenting with crazy equipment, transforming into some sort of worm, and spewing out an inky black cloud with a face that ends up demonstrating the secret he is seeking.  It might not make much sense, but it seems to work within the boundaries of its defined world, making for an interesting vignette that suggests a rich milieu surrounding it.  That might or might not be the case, depending on what you think of the rest of the series, but it works well for a short while, at least.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yeah, sure, even I don't think the rest of the volume is.  Sometimes shorter is better.

"Lo-Bot-O-My-Heart", "Slumburbia", and "Heart of Darkness"
By David Sandlin

Of the three pieces of Sandlin's included here, two aren't even comics, but kind of surreal paintings, which is a poor choice for a book of the best American comics.  The third, "Slumburbia", appears to be a sort of stream-of-consciousness critique of modern American society, presented as several one-page strips that see people sleeping through their lives, slaving away for their corporate masters/monsters, and engaging in lots of sexual perversity.  The imagery is all jumbled together, sometimes broken up by actual panels, but often running together, with infomercial-like captions running through it.  It's kind of ugly, and not as shocking as it hopes to be, the same sort of complaints about consumerism, gossip, and sexuality that gets bandied about regularly by social critics.  It's boring, and for something that seems to intend to shock, that's not good.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No, and hopefully I'm not just soured by Sandlin being recognized here for some non-comics work.

"The Galactic Funnels"
By Dash Shaw

This short story might be a bit more densely symbolic than Shaw's usual work, but it's still pretty interesting.  In the future, some conical cosmic apparitions are visible in the night sky, and a boy named Stan Smart becomes obsessed with them, and especially with an artist named Don Dak who draws paintings of them depicted from above (i.e. circles).  When he grows up, Stan enters art school, studies under Don, and starts drawing his own circular depictions of the funnels, eventually eclipsing his mentor, but never seeming to do anything other than draw circles, or, in a bit of avant garde pique, drawing them from an angle as ovals.  At the end of the story, after Don's death, Stan realizes that he's missing the whole picture; the funnels are three-dimensional cones, not the simple, flat shapes he's been depicting.  It's hard to tell what exactly Shaw is trying to say with this, but it suggests all sorts of interpretations about art, teachers, students, inspiration, representation, and who knows what else.  It's pretty fascinating stuff, and Shaw's art is as rich as ever, full of expression, movement, and color, along with an interesting rhythm that sees the narrative occasionally interrupted to show examples of Stan's art.  Shaw is an idea machine, and this is only one cog in the magnificent whole.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, and Shaw is sure to see more work published in future volumes, I suspect.

Berlin (Excerpt)
By Jason Lutes

This series is another regular feature in the Best American Comics volumes, and although I still regrettably have yet to read the longer work, it certainly seems worthy of inclusion every time.  This portion of the story sees a foul-mouthed man and his lover (mistress? whore?) get badgered for rent from his landlady, and when he chases her off without paying, she goes to her Communist comrades for help, with violent results.  In another scene, a hungry young woman looks for help from a Jewish friend, who welcomes her into his home for a meal and study session, only to have her get lectured on King David by his grandfather.  As with other excerpts I've read, Lutes has created a rich, detail-packed world here that is based on real history, and his art is exquisite, every panel full of clean-lined depictions of the characters and their surroundings.  It's gorgeous work, and every bit of it that I sample makes me want to experience the full story more.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, although next year's excerpt will probably need to be really good to merit inclusion once again.

Strips from Maakies
By Tony Millionaire

Millionaire has been cranking out this strip for years, and he doesn't show any signs of letting up, continually filling his rectangles with goofy jokes about drunkenness, violence, and bad behavior, along with some really pretty artwork.  The selections here are pretty great, alternating between the wacky antics of Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby and odd, apparently autobiographical bits about killing slugs with salt and the like, along with one strange little story about a girl obsessed with finding a wolf-headed baby in a paper bag on the side of the road.  Every strip is weird and memorable, and often really, really funny.  Millionaire has such an imagination for coming up with silly gags and opportunities to depict wild action and densely-shaded art.  It's beautiful.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  I hope Millionaire can keep going with this (or comics like it) in perpetuity.

"Black Death (Chapter Two)"
By Sammy Harkham

This might be the second part of a longer story, but it would be interesting if it started here, something that begins in media res with a man waking up in a forest, his body bristling with arrows and a rope tied to his waist, tethering him to a mute giant.  They come across a well and end up rescuing a man trapped at its bottom.  This amiable fellow appears to be a naked wild man who leads them in circles through the woods, stopping to tell his tragic story and identify the giant as a golem.  It's a freewheeling tale, just a bit of time spent with these odd characters, although it doesn't finish so much as just stop (which probably just indicates that it's not the end, and there is more story to come).  Harkham's art is pretty great, with rounded, fluidly-moving characters against a lush background, and a unique pinkish-orange hue that drops out for a stark black-and-white sequence that shows the golem's origin.  Very good work, something that encourages more exploration into Harkham's oeuvre.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Hey, shouldn't Harkham edit one of these?  He's already shown himself pretty capable with Kramers Ergot...

"Jordan W. Lint"
By Chris Ware

This probably goes without saying, but Chris Ware is a pretty amazingly good comics creator.  This story, which should make up a good portion of the upcoming next volume of Acme Novelty Library, follows Jordan Lint, a minor character in the "Rusty Brown" saga, throughout his entire life, each page jumping forward a year and depicting a few minutes at a time.  This might seem like a difficult way to define a character, but it works wonderfully under Ware's hands, ranging from early-twenties difficulties with adult responsibility and romance to eventual marriage and family life, with Lint remaining the same recognizable person throughout, but realistically aging and changing as the years progress.  Ware uses a variety of storytelling techniques here as well, with some pages broken into small panels full of word balloons and captions, and others being silent, with one notable strip being completely silent and depicting a graphic, doctor's-eye-view of childbirth.  He also sometimes sneaks mental imagery into tiny marginal strips that depict memories or fantasies, and his facility with expression and emotion really brings Lint to life, even if he's kind of an asshole.  It's beautiful stuff.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, definitely.  I can't wait to read the rest of the story when the next Acme comes out.

Fuzz and Pluck in Splitsville (Excerpt)
By Ted Stearn

In this excerpt from Stearn's graphic novel, a teddy bear and a featherless chicken have wacky adventures which also feature a bunch of other anthropomorphic animals, along with an antagonist of a lemon bearing an angry face.  There's lots of silliness, like aimless drifting on river rafts, chicken wrestling, and other nonsense, but while it's rendered quite well with lots of cartoony expression and detail, it doesn't seem like anything all that special.  Maybe the story is quite enjoyable as a whole, but this portion just seems like a parade of goofy adventure without anything especially eye-catching in the way of humor or action.  It's probably worth reading, but it doesn't seem all that award-worthy.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  No; it's more of a solid mid-lister, enjoyable for what it is but not something to push on people as a book they have to read. 

By Laura Park

This story was published in Superior Showcase, which features superhero stories by indie artists, but its superheroic content is negligible.  Instead, it's a touching story about two elementary-school-aged siblings who get picked on at school and have to fend for themselves at home.  The older sister takes care of the younger brother, and their rapport is quite touching, full of genuine feeling and caring, with at least two moments that are genuinely tear-jerking without being mawkish.  Park's art is beautifully expressive in its cartoony emotion, and she fills pages with plenty of rich cross-hatched detail, making the chaotic school and empty house really come to life.  It's moving and lovely, a really good story.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Definitely; this is another example of something that is perfect for this series.

Skim (Excerpt)
Written by Mariko Tamaki
Art by Jillian Tamaki

This graphic novel won a great deal of acclaim upon its release (I liked it well enough, and I think it has only grown in my estimation since), and for good reason; it's a well-realized tale of teen angst, not being sure of who you are or understanding the onslaught of emotion that comes with adolescence.  Plus, the art is beautiful, perfectly capturing the postures and movements of teenage girls and situating them in a tactile, moody world of school hallways and gloomy forests.  This excerpt is a great sample of what the story has to offer, as the main character learns of a classmate's boyfriend's suicide and has to endure a gauntlet of scrutiny because of her goth lifestyle, then becomes enamored of her creative, exciting English teacher.  Anybody reading this should know if it's a story they will want to read more of.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes; if there's any justice in the world, both Tamakis are on their way to comics stardom.

By Koren Shadmi

This short story sees a young man flirt, party, and eventually sleep with a girl he has a crush on, who just happens to have a blank stump of a neck and a decapitated head that she carries around under her arm.  That's a hell of a weird detail to throw in, but Shadmi plays it straight, with the characters acting as if there's nothing strange about this.  It might be a metaphor about separating the mind from the body, with the guy mostly lusting after the body, but there's also the possibility of a comment about separating your sense of reason from yourself when drinking and partying to excess.  Whatever the case, it's pretty well-drawn, with good facial expressions and a realistic sense of movement and gesture, along with a few good gags, like the girl picking up her head like a bowling ball.  Interesting, and a good introduction to Shadmi's work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'll say yes, but some might find it kind of slight.  Opinions: they're like noses.

"Glenn Ganges in 'Pulverize'"
By Kevin Huizenga

Huizenga is another artist that I didn't quite get, but I think I'm coming around on him.  He has a simple-seeming style, with cartoony characters and often using standard, non-showy layouts, but that downplays his skill with storytelling, his ability to convey information very, very well without layering on too much detail.  This story is one that has been mentioned as one of his best, seeing regular Huizenga protagonist Glenn Ganges working for a 90s dot-com company and becoming increasingly obsessed with the eponymous first-person shooter game that he plays with his coworkers after hours.  As the company edges closer toward the notorious bust that we all know happened in real life, the game ends up being a way for Glenn and his fellow players to blow off steam and find a way to deal with the chaos of the rest of their lives.  It's a rich tale, full of details that bring it to life, like the intricacies of the gameplay or the way it alters Glenn's view of the real world, and with the little moments of regular life that happen between gameplay sessions (I especially liked the way the CEO's word balloons always seem to end with "blah blah etc." to reflect the meaningless of his execu-speak).  It's a great story, and while it's fictionalized, it seems very real, which is saying something given Huizenga's cartoon abstractions and Tintin-style character design.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes; I'm starting to feel like I really need to catch up on all the Huizenga work I've missed.

"5:45 A.M."
By Al Columbia

This story consists of a series of silent panels depicting a house seen at the titular moment in time, and as with most of Columbia's work, they're all fraught with creepiness.  How he manages to make simple scenes of a coffee maker or a bed so freaky is a mystery, but it might have to do with the dim lighting or the strangely specific details.  It all builds to an especially creepy glimpse of a human face, suggesting a horror story but refusing to fill in any details, making it all unfold in the reader's imagination.  It's skillful work on Columbia's part, an example of why he is so revered in the field despite having produced so little work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure, although it is definitely slight.  It's very memorable though, and a great example of a type of comics storytelling that few are pursuing.

By Gilbert Hernandez

This story from the current volume of Love and Rockets is apparently related to another story that Gilbert did, "Julio's Day", but that's only indicated in the Contributors' Notes at the back of this book.  It works well on its own though, seeing a man set out from his house, walk through a countryside devastated by mudslides, and swell up disgustingly after eating a worm-infested taco.  The art is gorgeous in its simplicity when depicting characters, especially the grotesque deformity of the man's body, but beautifully baroque in the swirling lines depicting the landscape.  I don't really understand what the story is supposed to be about, but it's still fascinating, and an example of the intuitive storytelling that Gilbert has been doing for the last several years.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes,although I preferred a different story, "Victory Dance", from the "issue" that this one came from.  Still, Gilbert Hernandez!  Of course it's good.

"The Hand that Feeds" (Excerpt)
By Anders Nilsen

This is a story from Nilsen's Big Questions series, which apparently sees a bunch of birds and other animals explore the wreckage of a downed airplane, anthropomorphizing them to the extent that they talk, but still act like animals, flocking and eating dead things and living in the wild.  This particular example also sees a bald, possibly imbecilic boy wander through the setting, the birds attacking him when he dares to eat one of their precious doughnuts.  He also has a pet bird that defends him, leading to some interesting depictions of motion:

Nilsen's art is what is really being showcased here; he gives everything a beautiful texture through the thousands of dots that he uses as shading, making for a wonderfully realized environment.  He also puts some amusing dialogue in the birds' mouths, and gives everything a slightly creepy atmosphere.  It's a striking excerpt, one that makes the reader want to experience more of the story.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, although there's not much of it here.  It's enough to make readers salivate for more of Nilsen's art though, so that's probably a positive.

So, that's only nine out of thirty-three that I thought didn't belong here, which is a pretty good percentage.  It might not have been what I would have chosen as a "best of" for its eligibility period, but that's just a matter of personal taste, and considering the ever-increasing vastness of the comics field, this is a pretty great sampler of the excellence available.  In fact, this might be the best installment of the series yet.  Let's hope for a continuing upward trend; Neil Gaiman '10!