OH NO TIME IS ALMOST UP
*These lists can’t help but be kind of suspect; I haven’t even read some of the most prominent releases of 2004. I got a copy of “Locas” for Christmas. Did I read it yet? Ha ha. Hell, “Entertainment Weekly” named “Persepolis 2" their #9 nonfiction book of the year (and oh! to imagine the whimsical ranking criteria of a ‘best nonfiction book’ list). I’ve still not read it. Fantagraphics’ “The Complete Peanuts” also got a nice mention in the ‘books’ section for Best Reissue, and both of EW’s resident film critics placed “The Incredibles” at #3 on their respective Best Film lists. Nothing has stopped all of these people from putting together lists, and I’ve certainly never let common sense get in the way of this site before, so I’ll just throw in everything comics that I’ve read this year. It’s a pretty conservative list, looking over it. There’s a lot of stuff you’ll surely find on some other lists floating around. Collections of older stuff, single issues, unfinished miniseries, original graphic novels; there’s a bit of everything here, but they’re all works that I enjoyed very much, and I’d recommend them to you as well, in case you haven’t quite gotten around to them yet, just as I’ve managed to never find time for certain works this year. But 2005 is a new year, and that’s plenty of time to catch up on books that you missed, and books that I missed as well. And reading good books is what we all like to do. Sooooooooo....
JOG’S ELEGANT LIST OF TEN COMICS THAT HE REALLY ENJOYED IN 2004
10. Challengers of the Unknown #1-6 (of 6): And why not kick things off with a nice flawed work from writer/artist Howard Chaykin? It’s prone to repetition and overexplanation. The political satire is occasionally shrill and always amped up to the nth degree. The finale seems slightly rushed, and that characters are a little difficult to get behind. But more than any other Big Company book in 2004, “Challengers of the Unknown” demonstrated the power that can derive from the thoughtful interaction of each element of the comics page. Layouts are repeated for page after page, backing up the uniformity of the heroes in the eyes of their elite oppressors, and informing our readings of each carefully positioned panel. Captions repeat the same language over and over, for emphasis and irony. Sound effects are mechanically laid out, sometimes replacing dialogue all together, creating a void in which gunfights swirl and pulse. Even Chaykin’s character art, endowing each figure with a slight air of sameness (save for the uniquely coiffed and costumed villains), works to the advantage of the story’s themes of unity against the untouchable power elite. And there’s a genuine caffeinated buzz behind that story, taking us on a cook’s tour of contemporary conspiracy and extremism, and blasting us off to the secrets of the moon (and this won’t be the last book on this list that reveals such secrets). It’s reminiscent of other Chaykin works, and not entirely successful on its own terms, but it’s a small miracle of intuitive, intelligent, informative design in modern corporate comics, and for that it deserves praise.
9. Street Angel #1-4: Ah, dear old Internet darling. Out of the handful of small(er) press comics that swept through the blog world in 2004, creating chain reactions of praise and boosterism and questionable effects on actual sales, “Street Angel” is perhaps the most satisfying, and richly deserving of a wider audience, so the hell not boost it again? Veering from gory comedy to crackling action to winking absurdity to gallows dumpster fable, this story of the adventures of the world’s greatest homeless skateboarding martial-artist proved remarkably adept at successfully shifting tone and focus, while benefitting from some steep increases in art quality, culminating in the rotten urban vistas of issue #4, their towering proportions mocking the superheroic antics of issues prior. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca have only improved in visual style along the way, and it’s understandable why “Street Angel” would spur so many sites to spend such time hyping it. It’s the sort of book that you can’t help but feel that everyone would like, if they’d only take the time to give it a whirl.
8. We3 #1-2 (of 3): Handing a trio of cybernetically-enhanced talking housepets enough heavy weaponry to overthrow several dictatorships before their evening feedings may not have been the most logical idea for the military to pursue, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely make it all look eminently coherent, at least by its own internal logic. Good intentions, ways of limiting casualties (er, at least our casualties) are dashed upon the rocks as both man and beast succumb to their own limited vision, their own romantic impulses (perhaps delusions), and only a river of grue can come of it. What’s most surprising about this book is how much effect Morrison can extract from some pretty minimal characterizations; the animal protagonists make every line of dialogue count, their personalities and compulsions evident from their limited vocabularies, and their not-quite-free-of-instinctual behavior. What’s less surprising is that Quitely’s art is superb, orchestrating brutal fights and simple escapes with a maximum of aplomb, nimble characters leaping out of panels and simple lunge shown from dozens of perspectives at once. It’s a model for action comics in the 21st century, quick reading but possessed of remarkable depth. And what’s even better, the final issue will actually be coming out in a few weeks (the first one came out in August)! You can’t beat that!
7. Amy and Jordan: I didn’t properly review this Pantheon release, a collection of Mark Beyer’s 1986-1996 alternative weekly strip, chronicling the appalling adventures of the title couple, who only want to get through another day of life in the big city. But catastrophe always seems to catch up with them: hilarious and cruel catastrophe. I found myself reading just a few of these great little gems each night before bed, like passages from the bible, and the atmosphere of archly witty depression and resignation became all the more compelling. Beyer’s art, stuffed with dozens of tiny lines, becomes more appealing the farther on you get; the meat of the strip itself is often packed into small geometric areas of the page, as the panel gutters grow and overwhelm the strip’s visual designs, like the hated walls of the title duo’s apartment closing in to crush them again. This doesn’t sound funny, which is why I was so impressed when it worked so very well. Also sporting one of Chip Kidd’s most eccentric designs, with the outer hardcover forming something of a shell over the book’s ‘true’ softcover, unattached at the spine but glued to the back and wrapped around. This makes the book constantly feel as if it’s going to fall to bits, but it’s really pretty sturdy; in this way, the book design perfectly compliments Beyer’s handcrafted visual style, and shaky, on-the-edge humor world.
6. The Stuff of Dreams #2 (of 3): Robert Crumb gets so much of the attention, but for my money Kim Deitch is the finest storyteller to emerge from the underground scene, and he continues to improve. While each issue of this miniseries mostly stands alone thus far, there’s a constant theme: the historical power behind collectible items, and how they inspire those in the present. Deitch lays out this issue, the only one of the year and the best one yet, like a oft-told tall tale, beginning as a breezy anecdote about Deitch and his wife purchasing silent film memorabilia online, moving into a study of a fictional (but eminently believable) comic strip supplement to a particular lost movie serial, Alias the Cat, and exploding into a full-blown fantasia with molten gold, dirty politics, Henry Ford, mental illness (an all-time favorite Deitch element), furry sex, Waldo the Cat, hippy communes, forbidden romance, and the tenuous dream of peace in the post WWI United States. Deitch’s interests in silent film and vintage animated film intersect quite fully with my own, but I suspect that everyone can enjoy the sheer verve with which this story is related, lavished with Deitch’s rounded cartoon lines. Sure everything from the present to the past to the comics within the comic are drawn in exactly the same style, but in Deitch’s world there’s little border between the authentic and the fantastic, so why let style complicate matters? Get this book from Fantagraphics. Please. It’s one of the more overlooked titles of the year, but its superb material from a master of the form.
5. Kramer’s Ergot 5: A fine anthology, and perhaps the best summary of where alternative and art comics stand in 2004. It's a real snapshot of the area, expanded this year to include some well-seasoned talents like Chris Ware and Gary Panter, joining some of the brightest younger talents od today, like Kevin Huizenga, Marc Bell, Dan Zettwoch, and many more. Lavish, carefully designed, edited by Sammy Harkham, it's among the comics world's premiere (semi)annual releases, and it got there mainly through personal ambition and a very nearly mad devotion to high quality. If there's any vital anthology of vital work from this past year, it's surely this, where even the lesser works shine with enthusiasm and the vigor of experimentation.
4. Seaguy #1-3 (of 3): Without question the best Big Two superhero comic of the year. There was no serious competition. It was met with general audience indifference upon its initial release, of the small number of people who did buy it, quite a lot found it to be baffling, pretentious, masturbatory, or generally incoherent. But no Big Two superhero book has done so much for me as Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s three issue wonder, chronicling the adventures of a wetsuit clad superhero neophyte and his talking, flying, smoking fishy pal, as he wanders through a safe world of corporate-controlled adventure and total business oversight. Only on the moon can he glimpse the former wild heart of adventure, but this isn’t a smashing overthrow of the Man type of adventure, this is a mapping. A gauging of how far the control of those in power reach, and it’s pretty damn far. There are many possible readings of this hero’s journey, but one only needs to look at the haste with which so much of Morrison’s work on Marvel’s “New X-Men” was switched back to the status quo to get a certain perspective on the final scenes of “Seaguy”, a marvelously ambiguous conclusion that seems to put all the toys back in the box, but perhaps something has been accomplished anyway. Or perhaps not. If you haven’t already, please do look into the low low priced trade, coming soon, give the story the attention it deserves, and I just know you’ll understand. I’d love to see those projected sequels, but as a statement on both current comics and current society, “Seaguy” is sublime as it stands now.
3. Eightball #23: For those summer days of heated discussion! This book has a special place in the heart of this site; I wasn’t going to start blogging quite as early as I did, but I just couldn’t wait to get in on the discussion of this wonderful new work from Dan Clowes, who continues to promote the single-issue story as seemingly every other creator on his level has moved to larger works and original formal bookstore-ready volumes. So I started up a little early, and then went on vacation leaving the site stagnant for a solid week, setting a precedent that I’ve been working to overcome ever since. But not many commentators or enthusiasts could resist the pull of Clowes’ own superhero book, a total immersion in the disturbed world of young Andy and his best pal. At first Andy is merely super-strong, but soon he can make all of his problems disappear, which is what truly puts him above the humans (making him fully super-human). But he still has to deal with normal folk, who are prone to bouts of conscience and changes of heart, while Andy becomes all the more stiff, all the more unwavering from his path of justice, and he then rises above the humans in mentality as well. There have been political interpretations of this little number, genre interpretations too, but I prefer to see it has a exploration of what it takes to be truly above humanity, with a moving story of relationships thrown in for good measure. I don’t need to tell you that it’s also visually superb, with the year’s best use of color, but you’ve heard so much about this book that I dare say I don’t need to say anything at all. Let it be known that it has not dimmed in my mind, and has not declined in power over time.
2. Babel Vol. 1: It's about language. The language of dreams, the language of memory, the language of television and history, and the language of comics, of which David B. is fluent. Recurring images and simple figures mix with mythical beasts and tableaux of war, as the breakdown of security in the home reflects an epilepsy of the world. I can't wait to dig into "Epileptic", but I really can't wait to see more of this -just-begun work, a comic of abnormal ambition and skill and breadth.
1. You Can’t Get There From Here: Sometimes, I think Jason may as well have vanished after “Hey, Wait...”, his much-acclaimed English-language debut, for all the attention he gets these days. But he’s as good as ever, and this new book, his fifth English translation, was my very favorite of the year. Maybe it’s the sheer simplicity which Jason employs to tell his cracked tale of a Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, pages alternating content (dialogue, action, dialogue, action, etc) with mathematical precision, the six-panel grid reigning supreme, and his iconic animal characters remaining seemingly stoic, even in the face of kung-fu and lynch mobs and sexual violence and new love. But Jason, more than any other creator in comics today, can tell you volumes through pure image (the dialogue is minimal here), and simple panel beats. His style is one of pure elegance, and this story is enriched by his handling, ripping from violence to slapstick to final resignation. It’s such a curious tragicomedy, the sort of thing that I can only imagine Jason bringing us, but that’s what I value about him, and his work has given me the most enjoyment in 2004, hence its appearance here. There’s a whole new year to check it out if you haven’t, but Jason will probably have another book out by then, and it might be even better than this one. Keep those eyes peeled.
*Should I talk about movies too? I can hardly remember this year in film; it’s really hazy. I ought to take Will Pfeifer’s lead and just keep a record of everything I see next year...
I liked a whole bunch of movies that I only caught in theaters this year, although they had been released at first in 2003. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” was pretty marvelous work from Ki-duk Kim, who directs and writes and co-stars, crafting a time-jumping fable set on a floating monastery with an elderly monk and his young assistant practicing a fantasy mix of Buddhism and Christianity, complete with invented rituals, the meanings of which we must determine for ourselves. The young assistant goes through all sorts of trials, learns a lot about life, and finally sets out to find penance for his sins in a concluding sequence that struck me as what “The Passion of the Christ” could have accomplished had it not been obsessed with blood-drenched exploitation pomp. This is a ravishing, contemplative, even hypnotic film, and richly rewarding. Also technically a 2003 release was Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return”, a fine little film about two young boys dealing with the sudden reappearance of their long-lost father, who’s been involved in some very shady business. The rough, complex man proceeds to take them on a bonding trip, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s some serious alternate motives at work, complete with a Mystery Box. Oooooooooh! A Mystery Box! But really it’s an allegory for coping with the loss (permanent or otherwise) of a parent, that miraculously transforms even the most hackneyed of set-ups (one of the boys must conquer his inner doubt by overcoming his literal fear of heights) into fascinating visual poetry. Fourteen-year old Ivan Dobronravov delivers a fantastic performance as the younger and more conflicted of the boys. Critics have mentioned the connections between this film and the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian master and my personal favorite film-maker. And indeed, the traditional Tarkovsky elements of the absent father and the symbolism of water and the general tone of contemplation are all present (plus the two boys are named Ivan and Andrei, after the title characters of Tarkovsky’s first two features, “Ivan’s Childhood” and “Andrei Rublev”), but Zvyagintsev uses his admiration this former artist as inspiration for his own unique vision. It’s also quite a bit more immediately appealing to an audience, far more accessible than, say, “The Mirror”, which some feel requires several volumes of reference material and an Internet-ready laptop scattered around the floor as you constantly pause the dvd to cross-reference each onscreen happening. Er, anyway, “The Return” is way cool and you should rent it.
I really enjoyed “Maria Full of Grace”, which Stephen King just named his own favorite film of the year over in “Entertainment Weekly”. Excellent queasy drug mule action, with vibrant characters and a likeably tricky point-of-view. I also liked a lot of the year’s obligatory online picks: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Shaun of the Dead” largely lived up to their considerable online hype. I also got around to catching “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”, and it was interesting to see Wes Anderson expand his visual style to largely natural, outdoor settings, which he counterbalances with plenty of self-evident artificiality, like stop-motion animated fish. It’s more fragmented than average, with a weirdly stilted opening half-hour, and you can easily tell which jokes were added in to provide quick and easy laughs (pretty much everything in the trailer), since they clash considerably with the general tone of blinkered whimsey. But the use of music is as good as ever (I especially loved that “Life on Mars” sequence), and the film has a keen internal logic to its initial randomness. I adored the seeming invulnerability of Bill Murray’s title character, a passive-aggressive flim-flam filmmaker with a secret action hero’s heart, which is pertinant to a movie about the fictions evident in creating movies (and you may have thought it was about hunting sharks). But keep in mind that I’m generally simpatico to Anderson’s design-heavy twee atmosphere. While I suspect that fans of his prior films will enjoy this (though less than before), those who even gently disliked them will possible be pushed over the edge into outright loathing. I’ve already seen some pretty vehemently negative reviews, and that’s in an environment of largely middling reviews to start with.
*Ok, that's enough. Be good this year. See you in 2005!
*EDIT (1/1/05 12:07 AM): I just glanced at (not really) Dick Clark's New Year's (not really) Rocking Eve, and everyone was dancing and whooping in the streets just as the ball dropped and what was blazing on an information crawl behind them all, on the side of a building? Tsunami information, the words TSUNAMI KILLS shining above all of the beautiful camera folk as they slurped their drinks and wore their hats and jumped around.