You expected this.
*It’s good to wait until the end. Pretty soon I’m going to get over to the Comic Bloggers’ Poll, which is open until January 15, and enter some stuff in. But I can’t really consider voting in such a thing until the year is truly and actually over. It’s just me - I’m really an obsessive sort (as I prove again and again each day on the internet) and I keep getting the feeling that I’ll miss out on something if I declare the year ‘over’ as far as quality works go, and then I’ll be slapping my forehead and mumbling about blogging being a harsh mistress to whomever is sitting next to me at the bar as the ball drops in New York. But now - only a 92% chance of that.
So anyway -
Holy Candied Goddamn! It’s the Jog - The Blog 2005 Thrill Ride of Ten Great Books to Read or Maybe Nod Your Head Toward!
Yes, good old Top 10 lists. Nothing can beat them. Keep in mind that, as always, this is a fundamentally unfair list, as it mixes and matches daunting reprint collections of material originally presented over half a century ago with newly-produced work in a variety of formats, small pamphlets rubbing shoulders with decade-spanning works of hundreds of pages. Also, things I’ve not read aren’t going to be here, which probably explains the absence of Black Hole and Late Bloomer and Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! (which I’ve yet to even lay eyes upon in person, let alone purchase and read). Fortunately, there’s no pretense toward the objective or the comprehensive here; it’s just me, and the things I’ve read, and the things I’ve liked. Ten of them, in order.
10. Planetes Vol. 4 (of 4), Part 2 (of 2): Spot number 10 is always kind of a problem. I usually have a pretty good idea of which books I really really liked all worked out by the time the end of the year rolls around, the top few spots pretty much locked down. But the lower regions - that’s where things start getting messy. There’s a lot of books that almost showed up here, names flying all over the place (Shaolin Cowboy, The Secret Voice, Desolation Jones, Scott Pilgrim 2, Carrot for Girls - don’t let some stupid old list dissuade you from picking up these titles, all of which are very good). But this is the one that lodged itself in my head, the final book in Makoto Yukimura’s semi-realist space-faring saga, which started out as something about garbage collectors in orbit and transformed into no less than a pop meditation on humankind’s strained interrelations in a place where the mechanical provides miracles every minute; you’ll recall it getting quite a lot of attention upon its 2003 debut, after which everybody seemed to forget it existed. Certainly the book’s sales didn’t stabilize, and frankly they probably didn’t deserve to, as the intermittently powerful Vol. 3 became trapped in a morass of turgid psychological grumbling, and Vol. 4 Part 1 emerged as simply rushed and half-realized. Which makes it all the more marvelous that this concluding volume is so damn good, containing many of the series’ best sequences (Fee’s long journey with the dog and the bike), some fantastic characterizations (Yukimura’s adamant refusal to demonize nominal ‘villain’ Werner Locksmith results in one of more delicate character handlings of the year), and two essentially flawless concluding chapters that truly accomplish the amazing: making all the rest of it seem worth the time. There’s something to be said for exceeding expectations, and this book pulls it off marvelously.
9. Solo: Hmm, been a while since I covered this one, eh? But the more I think about it, the more impressive this series has been, with each of the showcased creators afforded a lengthy, lavish showcase for almost anything they want, and it’s gratifying that so many creators have risen to the occasion with impressive contributions. Standouts include Paul Pope’s issue #3, with its jagged reflections on heroism and storytelling, Howard Chaykin’s issue #4, a crisply structured homage to comic genres perched right on edge of the Silver Age and their effect on the author, and Teddy Kristiansen’s brooding and elegant issue #8. But that’s not to dismiss the formidable technical skill of Darwyn Cooke’s issue #5, or the palpable joy coursing through (most of) Mike Allred’s issue #7. Pope and Cooke even indulge in some disarming experiments in remaking classic stories, to attractive results. Given the ‘new talent every issue’ mandate of this book, it’s heartening to see that the talents involved have kept the energy up so high. If current realities dictate that a project like this be considered an ‘experiment’ by Big Two standards, so be it: this one is plainly a success.
8. Walt and Skeezix Book 1: An object lesson in effective, complimentary presentation. Drawn and Quarterly could have just presented two years of Frank King’s long-running Gasoline Alley newspaper strip (not the first two years mind you, but the kickoff years for the strip’s realtime aging, familial relationship setup) with some attractive Chris Ware covers and called it a day. But the whopping 54 pages of introductory material - featuring Jeet Heer’s illuminating essay on King’s beginnings and family life, along with countless photos of King’s relatives, friends, and homes - offers a truly useful service toward enhancing the reader’s understanding of the strips themselves. Images of the people who inspired the characters, sweeping visions of the family travels that informed the strip’s action, whispers of the tragedy that informed the work’s themes, never quite cutting through the gentleness of the funnies page - one truly feels they understand King’s work a good deal more from having read this book, and that’s beyond a simple reading of the comics, which remain sweet and funny and just a little sad, though their quality is essentially beyond argument now. This book strives to inform our reading, and we are better for it.
7. Promethea #32: Singled out as an issue, since it really has little to do with the rest of the series, and yet it encompasses everything. I’ve gone on and on about this book before; I’ll just repeat that it’s “a rousing arts and crafts project coupled with a fun and simple dexterity test melded to a newspaper funnies-style farewell strip mixed into an annotations guide crossed with a game of ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ where the Crown of the Tarot replaces the star of The Woodsman,” and note that writer Alan Moore, artist/co-designer J.H. Williams III, and letterer/co-designer Todd Klein remained entirely devoted to pushing the form of comics as far as it can go, finally smashing the boundaries of story itself, and forcing the reader to not merely consider the way they see reality, but the way they read comics. Backwards, forwards, poster form, page-to-page - this thing was everywhere, which was fitting since it sought to cover everything. And at least it successfully transcends the boundaries of Moore’s magical education, achieving a singular state as a dazzling puzzle of a storytelling art object.
6. Seven Soldiers: I’ve written some things on this one. It’s appeared on a few of these lists already. Some take it as one title, one project. Others insist on breaking it down into miniseries components. I think it’s working better as the former, yet upon examination it seems to laugh at the very idea of categorization. My favorite issues of this were Guardian #4 and Zatanna #4, though both of them derive a good deal of impact from being part of a large project. My favorite of the miniseries was Klarion, though there’s little doubt that it’s being tossed around by the concerns of something bigger than it. There’s bumps in the road (Shining Knight, Mister Miracle thus far) too. But what finally shines through is the pure drive of writer Grant Morrison’s creative hungers, hell-bent on transforming the old and forgotten into something admirable and strong, and making his point over and over again, in seven variations, as if he needs to continuing shouting it until he’s reached the number of god. And that force transcends whatever structural reading you prefer - you can see it in one, and you can see it in all. It’s also resulted in the most fun, engaging superhero books I’ve read this year, so there's that too.
5. The Acme Novelty Library: Second only to the cyclical bouts of amnesia regarding Chris Ware’s gift for comedy that seem to roll along whenever a new wave of praise/backlash follows the release of a fresh project, the underappreciation of Ware’s talent at recontextualizing his own extant works stands high as an unfortunate aspect of the critical discussion surrounding this most-discussed contemporary talent. It’s understandable - one needs to have access to Ware’s prior versions of his own work to make any sort of informed judgment on such a level, and very few are actually reading the Chicago papers in which much of his work is initially presented. But this book, Pantheon’s compilation of material originally presented, well, all over the place, afforded me my first real glimpse at Ware’s vision for revision - what was once a slightly disconnected series of gags and vignettes is now a mosaic of futility and desperation and unexpected tenderness, robots and cowboys and collectors suddenly joined under the watch of a (sometimes literally) marginal god, and Ware’s use of the accouterments of amusement take on new and powerful forms when played against the ‘realistic’ action of Rusty Brown and Chalky White, as all is suddenly related. This material needed not have existed before to be considered great, but that it has only increases one’s marvel at the author’s much-fêted ability. One can only shiver at wondering how Acme Novelty Library #16 will look in the future, as we know its life cannot be stagnant.
4. The Push Man and Other Stories: The most important manga release of the year, Drawn and Quarterly’s presentation of works by Yoshihiro Tatsumi simultaneously offers us a glimpse into the ever-foggy, much-ignored manga past, as well as a street-level view of a decades-gone Japan; the illumination is thus double. The man who coined the term gekiga, denoting a new world of serious, adult manga, Tatsumi’s great success comes through his succinctness and visual simplicity. These are often dirty little stories, pimps and killers and thieves wandering the alleys, but their construction, both through stripped-down designs and hastily floating action, creates a poetic quality rarely achieved in such gritty subject matter, not as well as this. It’s a dark book, but its honesty and clarity are unimpeachable, and it has much to teach today’s chronicler of lost souls in sorry cities.
3. Paper Rad, B.J. and da Dogs: What joins the top three books here on this list is the invigorating quality of the work - all of them make me excited about the possibilities inherent to the form, accessible to any creative person with the imagination, and the impact is felt even upon several re-readings. I don’t think limits even exist in the world of Ben Jones, whose work this gorgeous PictureBox, Inc. presentation compiles, both alone and with Jacob and Jessica Ciocci, his cohorts in the Paper Rad art collective. Bouncing wildly from story to story (a tale of an artist in space, the exploits of a group of human and robot and mutant friends, adventures for open-source character Tux Dog, more) and approach to approach (simple wavy lines and circles on thick paper, lusciously rendered color art and sketches, achingly beautiful monochrome computer vector/icon art on glossy black sheets, more), you can’t help but be caught up in the sheer joy of creation exhibited by these folks. Paper Rad is known for mixing the elements of sugared childhood (Gumby! Garfield! Nintendo! Muppet Babies!) into a fevered mass of positivity and celebration, and this book captures that feeling while offering up some good laughs, compelling personalities, and a winning sense of aesthetic purpose, as if the act of creating art is not merely fun and healthy, but vital to human spirituality and the very order of the cosmos. If there is any book you ‘discover’ from reading this list, I really hope it’s this.
2. Or Else #2: Actually one of the reprints on the list (Supermonster #14 was its original minicomic incarnation), and the legal indicia mistakenly places it in 2004. But there’s no way I can forget the year in which I read this, an astonishing work of narrative virtuosity by Kevin Huizenga (his upcoming Ganges #1 from Fantagraphics is one of my most anticipated titles for 2006). Really, it has to be taken as a single piece, although much of the reader’s attention is likely to fall on the 'library' sequence, in which a quarter of the book is expended on protagonist Glenn Ganges’ wandering mind as it stretches to encompass the staggering totality of merely being in the library at a certain moment in time - this will cause you to miss the subsequent contraction of the narrative into the density of a scientific text, or the carefully positioned anxieties of Glenn and his wife as they await the arrival of their baby, or even the autobiographical story about basketball that closes out the book, and wraps it all up. I gushed in much more detail over at Comic Book Galaxy, if you want to read it. Another issue of Or Else was released later this year, and it was good, but this is the one that stands so tall over almost everything else, it can only appear individually. That’s just how it works sometimes.
1. Epileptic: Ho ho, look at that! David B. had to settle for #2 on last year’s list, with the first installment of Babel, but here he takes the prize for the collected edition of his comics memoir, which soon becomes hopelessly devoted to his older brother’s epilepsy, because that’s how it went with his entire family. Wildly expansive, prone to anecdotes regarding ancestors, possessed with a nasty satiric bite, and layered seemingly dozens of times with icons, characters, imaginings, dreams, and decorative visual accompaniment, the book coheres marvelously into a portrait of struggle transcending generation and linear space; the threads that bind us as humans are strong, but those that bind our security are barely visible, and easily shattered. All is filtered through David B., his eye invading and transforming reality as we expect it, as this is ultimately about him, which means it can only be about everyone, as the sickness spreads from the body to the minds. More here. The best.
So that’s it for the year. Preparing this list evoked a lot of enthusiasm in me, which is good - there’s nothing here that makes me think “well, ought to round out the list, might as well be this.” No, these are all worthy books. But then, what kind of shitty year would it have been in comics, with its hundred releases every week, had it been otherwise? I’d rather not think of that. Actually, I’d mostly like to think of the liquids to quaff as midnight approaches, so be good, happy new year, and I’ll see you on the other side.