Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorite Comics Published in The Year Of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Ten

Preamble: Good lord, am I ever unqualified to present a "Best of the Year" list.  Looking over my bookshelves and longboxes in preparing the list that follows, I was astonished by how many books I would have liked to include here that were actually published in 2009.  I should probably be doing the 2009 list now, and the 2010 list a year from now when I finally catch up with all of the great books published this year that I haven't gotten around to yet.

Fortunately, I'm more comfortable now than I've ever been with the idea of these lists as more a kind of biography of the list-maker than any kind of authoritative statement about the current comics publishing landscape, unless that statement is "there are too damned many good books for any one blogger to keep up with!"  Seriously, there is just a glut of quality material out there right now, and while I want to read as much of it as possible for my own pleasure, the days when I could make any kind of attempt at "keeping up" are at least a couple of years behind me.  And, as I said, I'm mostly fine with that.  Do note these are MY FAVORITE 2010 comics, as opposed to THE BEST.

This is a ranked list, with the number one pick being my favorite comic of the year, although with the exception of the number one (and possibly number two) comics, the ranking is more or less arbitrary and would probably be different if I came back to the list a week from now.  I considered everything: comic books, comic strips, graphic novels, reprints, manga, etc.  The one exception I made was books about comics, of which Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death by Todd Hignite was the best of the year.  I believe the final volume of last year's number one comic, Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, was released at the very beginning of this year, but I did not include it as I consider Pluto a 2009 work.  It was a great year for comics.  Please enjoy this list of books, and have a safe and happy new year.


10. If N' Oof, by Brian Chippendale - One way of looking at this past year is to acknowledge the rise of the so-called "new action" or "fusion" (to borrow a term from Frank Santoro) comics.  Alternative cartoonists who embrace the conventions of genre comics to create thrilling new visions were in ample supply this year, including new volumes of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit, C.F.'s Powr Mastrs, and Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim, plus new comics like Shaky Kane's and David Hine's Bulletproof Coffin and James Stokoe's Orc Stain.  My favorite book of this type was Fort Thunder alumnus Brian Chippendale's massive and massively entertaining If N' Oof, the story of two pals traversing a bizarre alien landscape.  Chippendale's most accessible book to date may also be his best, as the one panel per-page approach he takes here provides us a new way of looking at his artwork and a greater than ever level of control over the pacing of this wildly entertaining story.

9. X'd Out, by Charles Burns - Burns' follow-up to his extraordinary horror graphic novel Black Hole is hard to describe, combining influences from punk culture, horror films, and European comics albums, most explicitly Tin Tin.  The way Burns uses color in this book is perhaps my favorite use of color in comics this year, which is great for an artist whose last and most high profile project was known for its stunning black and white artwork.  I also love that this is the first in a series of volumes, because I reeaaaallly want to read more.

8. Picture This, by Lynda Barry - I suppose another way of looking at the year in comics is as the year a lot of established masters of the form came out with some excellent, potential career-best books.  That's certainly the case with Lynda Barry's Picture This, her follow up to 2008's What It Is.  These books both combine comics, painting, and collage to explore Mrs. Barry's philosophy and approach to art and writing, the newest volume focusing more explicitly on drawing and image making.  If you make, have ever made, or have ever wanted to make any kind of creative work in any medium, you MUST read these lovely and inspiring books.

7. The Complete Peanuts 1975-1976, The Complete Peanuts 1977-1978, by Charles M. Schulz - Yes, it's the inevitable appearance of this year's Complete Peanuts volumes, with the series moving just past the halfway point and into the late 70's.  After the fascinating early years of the strip in the 50's and its evolution and refinement into one of the all-time great strips in the 60's, it was a delight to rediscover these wonderful 70's strips, which to my mind strike a perfect balance between the ever present serious and silly sensibilities of Peanuts.  Schulz's life's work is all things to all people, with a cuteness and sweetness on the surface, a razor sharp wit just underneath, and depths of poetry and sadness at its heart.  The Platonic ideal of a comic strip.

6. Walt & Skeezix 1927-1928, by Frank O. King - Or, how about we consider this year yet another step forward in the Golden Age of Classic Comic Strip Reprints (see above)?  Finally returned after a three year hiatus, Jeet Heer and Chris Ware edit and beautifully present a fourth volume in this invaluable series reprinting Frank King's Gasoline Alley comic strip.  This volume contains some fairly significant developments in the lives of the cast of characters, who famously age in real time.  A year-long custody battle for Skeezix when his previously absent birth parents return, and the birth of Walt and Phyllis's biological son, Corky.  As in previous volumes, a wealth of biographical material and King family photographs add context and poignancy to this previously obscure comic strip gem, one of the most moving and lovingly drawn narratives in comics history.

5. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, by Moto Hagio - I've been waiting years for someone to publish something by Moto Hagio, and I was not disappointed in the slightest by this book.  In fact, I loved everything about it, from the drop-dead gorgeous design work by Adam Grano, to the fine selection of stories by editor Matt Thorn, to the reprint of Thorn's definitive interview with Moto Hagio reprinted from the issue of The Comics Journal where I (and, I assume, most North-American comics fans) first became aware of the artist, to the fact that the master cartoonist herself attended Comic Con International: San Diego and reportedly had as great a time as the fans who were lucky enough to meet her in person or attend one of her panels.  None of this would mean much if the stories weren't any good, of course.  Fortunately, they're exceptional.  These  exquisitely drawn short narratives across a variety of genres spanning Hagio's decades-long career are terrific reads in and of themselves, and provide a fascinating glimpse into a tradition of comics-making we've still seen very little of.  More like this, please.

4. The Acme Novelty Library #20, by F. C. Ware - This may be the single best work of Chris Ware's career.  The fact that it is merely a part of (or supplement to?) a longer, as yet uncompleted graphic novel is mind boggling and kind of frightening.  One of two great works by two great comics masters experimenting with the comics medium to tell the life's story of an unlikeable protagonist released this year, I liked best Ware's seemingly effortless employment of art styles vastly different than what we're used to seeing from him to tell certain parts of the story.  I'm glad this is showing up on a lot of other people's end of the year lists, and that discussion is happening around this book.  There's a lot to talk about here.  A book whose virtues should only multiply upon the inevitable and necessary re-readings.

3. Wilson, by Daniel Clowes - I really liked Wilson.  For my money, the laugh-out-loud FUNNIEST comic released this year, and also one of the smartest and most formally thrilling.  The way Clowes structured the book, as a series of one page "gag" comic strips which reveal the character of Wilson and tell this sad chapter of his mean little life opened up a whole new way for comics to explore long-form narrative.  I was also pleased that my initial reading of the book as being heavily influenced by Charles Schulz's Peanuts was confirmed by the author himself in numerous interviews, but, y'know, that's beside the point.  The nature of the character and the pitch-blackness of the humor aren't for everyone, but if yours is the type of sensibility that can appreciate this sort of thing, you'll find Wilson a delight from first page to last. 

2. Savage Dragon #156-167, by Erik Larsen - Well, here's a fine example of how these sorts of lists can be sort of ridiculous.  I would hate to be put in the position of arguing the case for these issues of Erik Larsen's long running superhero comic as being "better" than Daniel Clowes' Wilson, but I'm CERTAIN I had more fun reading these than almost anything else this year.  Savage Dragon is everything I want out of superhero comics and then some. Larsen has been writing and drawing his comic since the early nineties, and it is better now than it has ever been.  The latest issue is the best in the entire run.  Constantly surprising, energetically drawn, and fun fun FUN.  I've not missed an issue in all these years, but in 2010, with the status-quo shattering "Dragon War" and "Emperor Dragon" storylines, it again became a "read it on Wednesday" release.  I wrote about the series at length here.

1. "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglers, Parts One and Two," by Jaime Hernandez, from Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 - Jaime Hernandez is my favorite living cartoonist, and these short stories, which MUST be read in conjunction with each other, are my favorite thing he's ever done.  What a thrill to witness first hand the publication of a certain All Time Great Comics Work from an artist whose place in the cannon is secured ten times over.  I missed out on "Flies on the Ceiling," "Wigwam Bam," and "The Death of Speedy Ortiz" upon their initial publication, but I was there for "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglars," and for that I will always be grateful.  Read my full review of Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Favorite Christmas Comic

                                                                                       (click to make big)

scanned from a book you should buy

Friday, December 24, 2010

Links! Happy Holidays!

No joke, one of my absolute favorite holiday traditions is Tom Spurgeon's annual holiday interview series.  The belle of the ball so far is the lengthy chat with Matt Seneca, a cartoonist and blogger who was barely on my radar before but who I will definitely be keeping a close eye on now.  Anyway, read all the interviews posted so far and check back every day for more, Spurgeon does a really good job with these. (That link is to the Seneca interview because I couldn't figure out how to link to the series, but, again, they're all worth reading).

Jeet Heer debuts a new column at Comics Comics spotlighting books that may not have received the attention they deserved upon initial publication.  This seems like a potentially excellent and NECESSARY column, as there is just a glut of quality material out there and things can easily get lost in the shuffle.  Join me in the comments section of that post to suggest your own overlooked gems.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz

I'm going to say right up front that I loved every page of this book.  That's no surprise.  I adore Peanuts and am a great fan of Chip Kidd's art books, particularly Batman: Animated and the under-discussed The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days

What is surprising is that it took me this long to get around to reading the damned thing.  Published way back in 2001, the book seemed particularly noteworthy at the time for showcasing some of the earliest Peanuts strips, which as aficionados are aware are quite different from what the series would eventually evolve into.  Fantagraphics started up their complete reprinting of the strip a few years later, but before that I don't think those early fifties strips were readily available anywhere.  Actually, The Art of Charles M. Schulz makes a great companion to the Fantagraphics series.  Those books, reprinting two years worth of strips per volume, are about at the halfway point right now, so reading the Chip Kidd book now reminded me of how much the strip changed over the course of its long run, a change that appears much more gradual when reading the Fantagraphics volumes.  It's neat to see the changes take place within the pages of a single volume, and the eighties and nineties strips reprinted here by Kidd serve as a kind of preview of what's to come in the Fantagraphics releases.

For those unfamiliar with Chip Kidd's books, they take an art-heavy, text-light approach to their subjects.  Printed here are strips photographed from the original artwork or from the pages of the newspapers in which they originally appeared, with minimal interjections by Kidd, usually noting subtle changes in Schulz's drawing style or the first appearance of a major character.  Also present are photographs of various Peanuts merchandise, to the chagrin, I'm sure, of those comics purists who are uncomfortable with this aspect of Peanuts.  Readers of this blog know I have no such problem, so I enjoyed this aspect of the book greatly.  Both strips and merchandise are lushly photographed by Kidd's frequent collaborator, Geoff Spear, who does his usual exemplary job and probably should have his name on the cover of the book along with Schulz and Kidd.  Spear's photography transforms mass-produced, off model toys into fine art that is just lovely to look at and, in its way, quite moving.

I'm not sure there are many like me who love Peanuts and haven't gotten around to this book yet, but on the off chance that there are, consider this your reminder that it is out there, and that it is well worth your time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Links! Good Writing About Books I Haven't Read

The essays linked below contain great writing on interesting topics, even if (like me) you haven't read the particular works being discussed.

* I really liked David Ferraro's review of Thor: The Mighty Avenger at Comics-and-More, particularly the digression about the difference in sales between serialized children's comic books and the bound collections of same.  I believe that's the cover to the forthcoming collection of the Thor comics, above.

* Tom Crippen has revised his essay on Alison Bechdel's Essential Dykes to Watch Out For at The Comics Journal, giving me the perfect excuse to link to it.  Some really fine, thoughtful writing here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Links! Miscellany

Three links with no relation to one another, other than the fact that they all pertain to comics...

*Lots of folks linked to this Vice profile of Jack Kirby by Dan Nadel, and rightly so.  It is quite good, and contains a generous sample of Kirby artwork.

*Dash Shaw gives an enthusiastic recommendation for an Osamu Tezuka documentary DVD that accompanies Helen McCarthy's The Art of Osamu Tezuka.  I second the recommendation...that is a great DVD.  That's a Tezuka self-portrait, above.

*Finally, Diversions of the Groovy Kind provides a nifty gallery of John Byrne Avengers splash pages.