Tuesday, March 8, 2011

2010: Comics continue to blow my mind with quality

This post is going up much later than originally intended, due to the lack of energy to blog regularly that comes with a new addition to the household, combined with a big project at work, but I'm finally getting around to the all-important task of letting people know my personal ranking for comical books that I read in the previous calendar year.  Enjoy!

2010 was a pretty great year for comics, and that's coming from the perspective of someone who kind of limited his intake to only certain portions of the medium.  I avoided most superhero/direct market mainstream stuff this year, although it doesn't seem like I missed too much on that front, and I read much less manga than I usually get to, but I still found tons of great comics to rave about, from great works from old pros to new discoveries and exciting imports.  It continues to be a pretty awesome time to be a fan of the old words-n-pictures.  So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best comics of 2010:

25. Temperance


Cathy Malkasian's allegory/fable/whatever it is about a sheltered people, their knowingly lying religious leader, and the wrathful deity they obey/fear is a confounding work, and a fascinating one, with some excellently moody art.  I still don't know if I really understand it, but it's a strange, unforgettable book.

24. Market Day



James Sturm's story about a rugmaker coping with changing times is beautiful and arresting, a look at an era when craftsmanship was overtaken by tradesmanship and the effect that shift has on one man's life and self image, full of beautiful art and evoking an interesting, lived-in feeling.  What could be a dry subject becomes intensely emotional and realistic; a real triumph.



"Visual poetry" might not be the best way to describe this book, but it does come to mind, given the literal pursuit of its central character toward a career in poetry writing and its structure, which starts out punctuated by dramatic events but slowly evens out into a trip through his life as he discovers the value of experience when trying to craft meaningful words.  It's lovely to look at, full of beautiful seascapes and cartoony movement.  It may be a small and quick read, but it doesn't seem that way in subsequent memory.

22. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour



The finale of Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular series might have been somewhat overshadowed by the release of the movie adaptation, but the perfectly-stuck landing that was performed here should not be ignored; O'Malley has gotten better and better over the course of the series, and this volume was a great demonstration of his skills, including hilarious humor; clean, clear art; exciting, fantastical action; and heartfelt emotion.  Fans couldn't have asked for anything more.

21. King City

After Tokyopop gave up on much of its OEL product, it seemed like the rest of Brandon Graham's story of a "cat master" and his adventures through the wacky futurescape of the title was going to be lost to the ether, but a miracle happened and the series was rescued from oblivion, released in an even better format, serialized across twelve large-size issues, which gave Graham (and friends) the opportunity to add nice covers and extra content to the already content-packed story.  Graham has an amazingly fertile imagination, and getting to read any of his comics is a treat, both for the well-drawn characters and clean art, but also the detail packed into the panels, the constant wordplay, and the cool/weird sci-fi concepts.  Interestingly, the structure of the comic itself ended up being less of a driven plot and more of an amble, a good-time hang-out with the characters in the environment Graham created.  It makes one wish he could just keep going on the series indefinitely, letting his imagination just pour onto the page each issue and seeing what happens.  Maybe we'll get that from Graham at some point, but for now, these twelve issues are going to have to suffice.

20. Officer Downe

Joe Casey is another imaginative creator, a writer who can be counted on to come up with fascinating, exciting concepts, at least in his creator-owned work where his imagination is unfettered by corporate control.  He's also great at finding artistic collaborators who bring a lot to the table, and Chris Burnham appears to be keyed into Casey's mental wavelength, bringing his vision of a brutally justice-minded LA cop given immortality through psychic powers to life in exciting, visceral fashion through his grimily detailed linework.  It's a psychotically violent romp, with a bit of social commentary and a heaping of style.  It's pretty awesome stuff, a crazy action story with a brain.  If only more comics, or any entertainments, were like this.

19. Moving Pictures



Stuart Immonen is one of the best artists working in "mainstream" comics (or rather, Marvel/DC comics, which have become less and less mainstream over the past couple decades), and his wife Kathryn is fast becoming one of the most interesting writers, so any chance to see them work together is a treat for readers, and this graphic novel about the fate of works of art in Nazi-occupied France is pretty incredible, a noirish tale full of twisty dialogue whose art veers between cartoon simplicity and exquisite recreations of famous artworks and detailed backgrounds.  It's some pretty great reading, one that lingers in the mind both for its well-drawn characters and its excellent visuals.

18. Wally Gropius

This is a deeply weird comic, but one that is not easily forgettable, starting with an off-kilter take on old teen comics and throwing in a sort of dada energy, social commentary that isn't always easy to decipher, some startling sex and violence, and an angry attitude toward the idly manipulative rich and their disdain for the rest of humanity.  It's also really funny, and what seems like random incidents eventually cohere into an actual story, but the crazy contortions of the characters, the financial imagery and sound effects, and the bizarre dialogue and actions from the characters are what will haunt the mind for some time to come.  Hopefully this will be a fascinating artifact of a moment in time in the early 21st century, one that people will puzzle over long after all the problems inspiring it are forgotten.  We can dream, but at least we can enjoy the funny anger this book inspires in the meantime.

17. Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk volume 1



It's always exciting to see new talent emerge, and with this webcomic-turned-graphic-novel-series, Ben Costa has definitely established himself as somebody to keep an eye on.  A well-researched bit of historical fiction about the adventures of a 17th-century Chinese monk, the comic has a beautifully fleshed-out setting and characters, plenty of well-choreographed action, some interesting experiments in visual flow, lovely coloring, and a nice mix of humor and seriousness.  It should be fascinating to see how it continues on its course, and to see Costa continue to develop as a hopefully-more-appreciated cartoonist.  Get in on this one if you haven't already.

16. Smile

Raina Telgemeier has already established herself as a successful creator of girls’ comics with her adaptations of the Babysitters’ Club books, but she moves on into original territory here wonderfully with this autobiographical story of her formative years, focusing on her traumatic experiences with braces.  While the dental drama may be at the forefront of the book, from the title on down, it's really a story about surviving those pre-teen and teenage years, delivering a message about self-esteem and enduring hardship without being preachy, but organically incorporating the lessons into an enjoyable time spent with the well-defined characters in Telgemeier's family and social circles.  For kids who need to hear that message, this is pretty much a perfect delivery system, a reminder that life lasts much longer than those few years, and it's best to start standing up for yourself sooner rather than later.  It might seem a bit odd to like a book for its perceived effectiveness in delivering a message to an intended audience other than oneself, but quality is quality, even if it’s not directed at you.

15. AX volume 1



This anthology culled from an "alternative" manga magazine was kind of uneven, veering from crude to exquisite, from banal to profound, from weirdly interesting to just plain weird, but it was nonetheless essential, a great collection of the type of manga that rarely makes it to Western shores, the experimental types of stories that don't fit into the pre-made demographic categories and genre pigeonholes that have already become so familiar.  As a glimpse into the vast realm of manga that exists but will probably never be translated due to likely commercial disaster, it's great, and hopefully only the first of a long, regular series of installments.  There should be something on the manga shelves for everyone, and that now includes fans of indie comics.  It's an amazing world that we live in.

14. Cuba: My Revolution

Stories of dashed idealism are often compelling, and that's certainly the case with this autobiographical story of the Cuban artist Inverna Lockpez, who, as a young woman, fell hard for the allure of Fidel Castro, supporting his revolution with a nationalistic, populist fervor, until it all went wrong, falling into corruption and fear and nearly destroying her and her family in the process.  Dean Haspiel provides some incredible imagery here, really selling Castro's charisma, how much Lockpez's artistic drive meant to her, and the feeling of optimism slowly being supplanted by oppression, while giving harrowing scenes of war and torture a visceral impact.  Jose Villarubia adds to the experience with his colors, limiting himself to shades of red and pink, which allows him to emphasize that Communist hue as it permeates the country, but also aspects like Lockpez's mother's attempts to hold on to her glamorous lifestyle through the bright red of her outfits and lipstick, or, by eliminating color completely, the horror of Lockpez's ordeal when she is suspected of being a spy.  It's fascinating, gorgeous work all around.

13. Bodyworld

Dash Shaw cemented his reputation as one of the most talented young comics creators working with this book, a fascinating example of a way to do a webcomic-turned-print-comic.  The thick, vertically-oriented hardcover managed to approximate the vertical scroll of a web browser, and fold-out maps even mimicked pop-up windows.  Of course, those physical features wouldn't be worth much if the comic itself wasn't any good, but Shaw did great work there too, telling a funny near-future story about drugs, high school, and identity, and coming up with some crazy paint-spattered visuals and cool ideas on how to convey information in comics.  Essential reading in this modern age of bookstore-ready work.

12. The Unsinkable Walker Bean

Aaron Renier established himself wonderfully as a creator of European-style children's comics with this first volume in what will hopefully be a long-running series following the exploits of an inventive seagoing moppet and his friends as they deal with dangers both terrestrial and supernatural.  It's a lovely work, and one that seems truer to what real kids in dangerous situations would be like than most kiddie adventures, in that it acknowledges that this stuff can be scary and emotional.  I really dig it.

11. The Playwright



Eddie Campbell is a prolific creator, and the comics world is certainly the better for it, getting idiosyncratic works like this on a semi-regular basis, graphic novels that are squarely aimed at adults.  This one confronts middle-age anxieties about sex and relationships in a slightly unnerving, frighteningly honest, and often hilarious manner, and it is filled with tons of great Campbellian moments of expression (physical, facial, and verbal) and some absolutely gorgeous coloring.  Nobody else makes comics like this, so I'm happy every time I get to read more.

10. It Was the War of the Trenches



I had trouble deciding whether to include this as a 2010 book, since it was really made much earlier, but due to the peer pressure of seeing it on other lists and the comparable inclusion of at least two other compilations of foreign-language works on my list, I figured I couldn't leave it off.  Really, the fact is that it's one of the most incredible books of the year, an ugly, grimy, angry look at the devastation of war on everything it touches, an endless cascade of horrors that are all the more effective due to their reality.  This is arresting work, something everyone should read, lest we forget how easy it is to get caught up in the killing once again.

9. Koko Be Good


On a cheerier note, Jen Wang's cute graphic novel about an abrasive hipster girl learning to be a positive force in the world was fun and funny, full of loose-limbed cartooning and earned sentiment.  Wang's grasp of her characters, their voices, and the San Francisco setting is pretty incredible, making every page a fast-moving romp through life with likable young people.  Diversions don't get much more diverting than this.

8. The Outfit

Darwyn Cooke's second installment in his series of adaptations of Richard Stark's Parker novels was possibly better than the first, at least in the area of show-offy stylistic metamorphosis.  The crime/heist/violence material was as good as one would expect, but a large portion of the middle of the book jumped between techniques vertiginously to relate several different simultaneous criminal "jobs" at once, switching from illustrated prose told as a pulp magazine article, to cutesy mid-century cartooning in manner of Playboy cartoons, to goofy old-school animation, and back to the shadowy noir that defines the milieu of these stories so well.  As a bit of look-at-this cartooning, it's great, entertaining stuff, but it works wonderfully as part of the book as a whole, cementing the 50s atmosphere while retaining the hard edge of the crime stories.  And that's just one aspect of an excellent book, leaving much more to take in, a testament to Stark's original work and Cooke's masterful interpretation of it.  It's a great read, one that leaves you wanting more, always more.

7. A Drunken Dream



Moto Hagio finally got her English-language showcase with this career-spanning collection of her works, and it's enough of a taste that readers should be clamoring for more.  From the beautiful artistic filigrees that fill panels throughout, to the firm grasp of character and complex emotional examinations, every page of this book is an essential bit of reading for manga fans.  It's a damn shame that there aren't more books like this available in English, and especially a complete catalogue of Hagio's works.  Let's make that happen, people.

6. Demo volume 2



It's always awesome to see evidence of artistic growth.  Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan took the opportunity to update their name-making miniseries with a new volume, and they used it to move beyond the teenage concerns of the first 12 issues and relate fantastical, metaphorical stories about adult concerns and relationships, telling a series of done-in-one stories that revealed well-drawn characters and incredible artwork.  This is beautiful, affecting work on many levels at once, and hopefully a third volume (and more after that) will be forthcoming.

5. Daytripper

It’s always interesting to see what permutations of story types and formats develop in comics, especially in a mainstream, established imprint of a major company like Vertigo, which has moved beyond the dark fantasy subject matter of its early years into all manner of content in recent years.  This ten-issue series by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, the twin Brazilian rising stars of the comics field, might be the most literary (or “literary”) Vertigo series yet, dealing with subject matter like aging, romance, fatherhood, society, success, and probably most of all, how choices we make and random chance govern the directions our lives take.  That’s the stuff of New York Times Bestsellers and Oscar-winning dramas, and the interesting thing here is that Moon and Ba take advantage of the comics medium when telling it, not just in the use of their imagery, but in the serialization of the story in monthly installments.  This was a canny move on their part, since while the story works as a complete graphic novel, it took on its own distinctive pleasures over the course of the ten months in which the issues came out, keeping readers guessing at what exactly was going on, while immersing them in the lives of its main character and bringing him to life (ironically, considering what happens to him each issue) as somebody to care about, an example of humanity in all its multifaceted complexity.  In the end, the "mystery" of what was happening to him over the course of the series turned out to be kind of mundane, but that just made him seem all the more real, a man considering all the possibilities of life and death, and accepting his life as it was lived.  That's a pretty beautiful affirmation of humanity, and the deeply-felt moments and gorgeous art throughout the series only cement Moon and Ba as incredible talents with momentous careers ahead of them.  I can't wait to see what's next.

4. Wilson

While Daniel Clowes might not be as universally respected as it seemed like he was five to ten years ago, he can still deliver some highly entertaining comics, and that's exactly what he did with this, his first original graphic novel, which introduced readers to the highly unlikeable title character, and then proceeded to drag us along on his various adventures until we were not just used to him, but actually cared about him, or at least felt kind of bad when his misanthropy led to bad ends.  The constantly-shifting art style keeps readers on their toes, filtering Wilson's experience through a new lens on every page, and Clowes paces individual pages and withholds just enough information to deliver the perfect impact for each turn of the plot.  It's an odd book, but a signature Clowes work, and a great use of the comics medium.

3. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3



Is this the best work of Jaime and/or Gilbert Hernandez's career?  Who can say, given the thirty or so years of excellence they've contributed to the medium, but the work here is pretty amazing all around.  Gilbert's shocking story of violent exploitation of "lesser" cultures in the name of progress is horrifying and funny all at once, a great addition to his growing catalogue of "B-movies", but Jaime's stories are what got all the attention, and rightly so, being a heartfelt examination of his characters' past and present, one that fills in backstory, reveals heartbreaking moments that had been papered over, and continues to make these people feel so, so real.  This is an amazing example of how great these creators are, and the way comics can be used for maximum effectiveness to tell emotional, realistic, beautifully real stories.

2. Acme Novelty Library #20



Chris Ware has also earned his reputation as one of the greatest cartoonists ever, but he never sits still, always striving forward to come up with new ways to use the comics medium to tell stories, and he broke new ground again with this latest installment of his ongoing "Rusty Brown" story, which veered away from the main narrative (if there can be said to be one) to follow a tangential character's entire life from birth to death.  It's a dazzling display of Ware's talent, and any number of amazing ideas are on display, from the indications of language development in the early years; to the glimpses of memories, thoughts, desires, and self-deceptions experienced throughout; to the haunting depiction of death.  Most interesting, however, is the way Ware leaves out key information, suggesting and implying events but only detailing their consequences and/or vague memories.  There's also a striking shift in style meant to evoke the experience of reading a book written by a character that takes inspiration from the alt-comics work of creators like Ron Rege, Jr., making for a bit of emotional horror that puts a cap on the ongoing destruction that the main character has wreaked on others' lives throughout his lifetime.  As a whole, it's a virtuoso work, not just one of the best works of Ware's estimable career, but one of the best graphic novels made, period.

1. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less



As great as Ware's book was, I went with this as my top choice because it affected me more deeply, which is the prerogative of a list-maker, to arbitrarily prioritize one work above another for ephemeral reasons.  Sarah Glidden's amazing exploration of Israel, both the physical country and the place it held in her head, is a work that settled deep in my brain and stayed there, making me consider how complex the various issues (political, emotional, religious, and otherwise) which swirl about the region are, and how thousands of years of history and millions of individual voices have rendered it near-impossible to fully understand, even when you have a personal stake in it and do your best to educate yourself about it.  Glidden's openness about her feelings and the way they were reinforced or overturned is remarkable, as is the way she entertainingly guides readers through her experience on her Birthright trip through the storied land, revealing the people she travels with and meets as real and fascinating and recreating them and their setting beautifully in her watercolored art.  For me, there was no better comics-reading experience in 2010, and considering the quality of everything listed above this book, that's saying something.  Ultimately, any attempt to rank works of art is futile and basically pointless, but it's a great way to explore what affects one and what sticks in the mind and memory rather than glancing across the surface.  That so many quality works penetrated that surface and will remain in the memory for years to come is a testament to how many wonderful, excellent, long-lasting comics are being produced right now, and how exciting it is to experience the continued growth of our beloved medium.  So, what's next?

Honorable mentions:

Joe the Barbarian
The Sixth Gun
Strange Tales II
X'ed Out

Not yet read:

Afrodisiac
Duncan the Wonder Dog
Grandville Mon Amour
The Wrong Place
You'll Never Know volume 2