Final Crisis #7 (of 7)


Oh well, ok, I liked this one.

In fact, here's three things I really liked, right off the top:

1. Aaaaaaaah, Batman came back to life in one issue! Haw haw haw!

2. I dunno if it was just sheer ridiculous luck or a product of working seriously down to the wire, but oh my gosh did that opening bit with America's Black President as Alternate Universe Superman come off as a nastly little riposte to the cynical Obama finale to Secret Invasion, particularly in that the beatific Wonder Horn seems awfully similar to a crucial item from writer Grant Morrison's prior extended Jack Kirby riff, Vimanarama: the Horn of Jabreel, a proudly heroic Christian-Islamic fusion instrument that bellows against the, shall we say, different religiopolitical subtext of the Marvel series. And instead of merely summoning the lightning of the angels, the Wonder Horn summons Captain Marvel & friends! Which is better!

3. At one point, toward the end of the issue, an elderly Monitor remarks that the story's gone out of control and ought to be stopped, only for another Monitor to bark: "Forgive Monitor Tahoteh his encroaching senility."

You know what? Shine on, Morrison. Don't ever change.

Also: yes, that's a climactic scene of Darkseid's grand defeat (the first of two, actually) being cut in half by a one-panel study of Aquaman and a dolphin saving our oceans. No, it never comes up again. That's just how we're gonna roll in this concluding issue, and I really do have to admit that's exactly what I was hoping for back in issue #5. Shouting, running, panels crashing into each other, jarring spandex juxtapositions, anti-chronology, plotting densified to the brink of opacity, multiple narrators positioned not only at different points on the timeline but in different universes altogether - hey, I asked for it!

Now, lest anybody take the wrong idea from this, let me make something fairly clear. Final Crisis is a deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply flawed work. This final issue's closest aesthetic relative is (fittingly) Morrison's similarly tense and conclusive Seven Soldiers #1, to which it cannot hold a candle, least of all because the Seven Soldiers project, uneven as it was, devoted good attention to building up some sharply detailed characters and a digressive but ultimately effective story, conductive to Morrison's oft-repeated themes.

Final Crisis, in contrast, has functioned primarily as oscillating series of thematic prompts that sort of look like a story when you stand back and watch them all swinging in a web of trails, but don't particularly connect as one when examined closer. Oh, there's beginnings and endings most of the time, sure -- I always understood what was going on, at least -- but remarkably little particular build. No, the build of the series has been mainly a product of holistic pacing and roiling mood, with the bleak infusion of Anti-Life (issues #1-3) giving way to the mad activity of the worsening collapse of reality under Darkseid (issues #4-7).

And even that has been considerably problematic, since the latter half of the series developed a habit of starting and stopping and diffusing its own pressure by lingering on the aforementioned insubstantial plot points, few of which provided much substance beyond typical Event comic action or thin affirmations of superheroic idealism succeeding in the face of wickedness; it was pointedly simplistic in the face of Morrison's seemingly rich concept of Anti-Life as kaleidoscopic despair. The visual element might have helped to convey some silent depth or shading, except production fell so wildly off schedule that it became quite enough for however many artists to keep things looking semi-consistent while maybe putting together the occasionally nice action page.

Granted, it's not that Seven Soldiers was bereft of those problems or anything - it had its share of fill-in artists and delays too, not to mention a publisher-mandated whittling-down of the plot at the end. But the earlier series was a suppler thing, bigger in scope and thicker in stuff and more ready to adapt. In the end, Final Crisis was more delicate, reliant on carefully-placed signals and the niceties of tone, despite being a much more 'important' project to the DCU (with much less space). Perhaps it just had more chances to go wrong, and took them.

(and another thing: why was Supergirl's cat peeing in the laundry? GOD these dangling plot threads!)

But this issue? Oh, it just struggles to roar through it all, and that's pretty good. Thank heavens Doug Mahnke has arrived as sole penciller, and one with a forceful enough style that he can withstand the attentions of seven inkers (including himself) and three colorists; there's a consistant wrinkled humanity to his characters, a unifying force that gels with Morrison's concerns (life, Anti-Life, human living) while adapting to whatever crazy shit happens to wander into any given panel. As such, he can express the schizophrenic variety of the DCU while loaning it a sense of shared space, like it's all somehow meant to be that way.

Plot? It's in there, but no longer in the manner of simple scene to scene progression; instead, the structure hones in on the returned Superman as its gaseous center, everything else orbiting around like glittering scraps of space garbage loosed in a void. It's no exaggeration to say that the story all but goes to pieces at the end -- in that the panels start breaking apart and drifting away, at one point -- or that the renewed status quo of the DCU is barely even touched upon. It's all right. It's better this way - only now does an entire issue truly feel like something grand is happening, something powerful enough that the comic can no longer adhere to simple chronology or unbroken scenes.

As a result, Morrison's most booming themes seem to register more clearly. Nearly all of the action is suddenly recontextualized as stories being told by various characters to other characters - and as we know, creativity is the stuff of Life! It's no longer so much 'will Hawkman survive' or 'can the Flashes divert the Omega Sanction' as some evidence of idealism or heroism defeating Anti-Life, but the act of reporting and preserving those events as the true stuff of enduring Life, rocketing stories out into the unknown so that they might land somewhere else (like the next-to-last page) and inspire anew through narratives. That's what Morrison's been doing, after all - if Final Crisis is a reversal of Seven Soldiers' telling of the renewal of superhero concepts, then it makes sense that the ultimate degrading of superheroes could be overcome by the nicest bits escaping for later inspiration.

Suddenly, all of the DCU seems made of creativity. Fire has been a big motif throughout the series -- symbol of development and heroism, charged with the mythic significance of mortals communicating with gods -- and here it becomes frankly supernatural as Superman powers his Big Wishing Machine with flame from Metron himself; it's the spark of inspiration, and allows for the total recreation of the universe (no bad concepts; just bad creators)! Song also emerges as especially vital; the Multiverse hums with the music of so many odd, diverse concepts, and it's no random happening that Superman finally vanquishes Darkseid by grasping the melody and singing the perfect little number and blowing him to shreds with the force of diversity; so much for the uniformity of Anti-Life!

Sure, I imagine this could have worked better if it'd all been built up with greater care. And let's be frank: judging from the distinctly off-panel nature of certain bits of action and the wholesale reversal of plot points that've otherwise been (clumsily) given some space earlier (the Black Gambit, I'm thinking), it's probably not out of line to suggest that this issue's state is inequal parts inspiration and desperation. I pity the poor souls who plan to pick this thing up in collected form - huge chunks of this issue will make little to no sense if you haven't read the Superman Beyond 3D tie-in, ringing themes or not. I thought Morrison was setting up a future storyline there (hell, maybe he was at some point), but it looks like another occasion for this one to get more overstuffed.

Yet even then, there's something.

Accident or frantic effort or whatever, the cacaphonic style of this issue does a disarming job of touching something deep and strange inside the Event comic. Stripped of detailed motivations, rammed together, the hundreds of superhero properties of the DCU -- armors and leotards and monsters and angels -- form a surreal picture of what a Crisis should mean in tossing all this clashy shit together. It's barking insanity, but the power of its odd being resonates strangely with Morrison's insistence on the joys of diversity of stories.

I wouldn't say it's something only an Event comic can do; Morrison has done DCU Big before, going back to JLA. But it seems... nice that he's taken the chance with such a hyped project to toss things together as superhero noise while affirming the delight of every last aspect. Poor framed Hal Jordan (once such an important plot point!) may spend much of the issue waving his arms around and screaming the Green Lantern Oath, but crashing into the action to accompany master storytellers Superman (having just wielded divine fire to revamp the universe) and Nix Uotan (whipping up new Ideas as the Multiverse's natural defense) while the Supermen of many worlds, a crack team of funny animals, a flock of angels, and The Forever People of the Fifth World crowd around in an effort to drive a stake through the heart of an extra-universal space vampire that's been possed by the incarnation of the corporeal capacity for corruption - damn it, that's something.

Is it fussy? Well, yeah - fuss is maybe all Final Crisis has going for it. But the fuss itself finally feels like something worthwhile, here at the end (beginning) of all things.

"But the fire burns forever."

Ha ha, it sure did consume this series, didn't it?

Man, it looked kinda lovely eating up the last of it.


Maybe a more focused week?

*We can only hope.


The Caterer #3 (strange mock-up mockery and abject appreciation; laffs)

and two movie reviews (Let the Right One In and Synecdoche, New York)

*Several things forgotten or once anticipated -


Capacity: Quite possibly the most acclaimed under-the-radar comic of 2008, a 336-page softcover collection of minicomics and original works five years in the making by Portland-based artist Theo Ellsworth; this one seemed to wow just about everyone that got hold of it, although online chit-chat was still somehow next to nil (god knows I wasn't much help) - maybe this Direct Market release will lead a few more people to check out the artist's playful blend of fantasy, autobiography, dream exploration and restlessly inquisitive tinkering. Review coming soon. From Secret Acres; $15.00.

Kaspar: A new one from Drawn and Quarterly's line of small books, this time a 96-page, $12.95 work that tracks the infamous life of Kaspar Hauser, who claimed to have lived in a cellar for his first decade and a half and became a subject of much curiosity in and beyond his own time (see also: the 1974 Werner Herzog feature The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, additionally known by its original and far more wonderful title Every Man for Himself and God Against All). Quebec artist Diane Obomsawin pursues minimal graphics and intimate observation. Samples here.

Pixie Vol. 1 (of 2): Unless I'm totally wrong, this is the first entry in Tokyopop's new series of translated French comics that bear some extensive manga/anime influence. It's a 2004-07 series from writer Mathieu Mariolle and artist 'Aurore' (Demilly), concerning magic and kingdoms and creatures and things. Note that this will be printed larger than manga digest size (thank heavens) but maybe not quite as big as a typical French album, I don't think. It's $12.99 for 108 color pages; for some reason, Diamond says the series is four volumes long, but since each Tokyopop book is collecting two French albums, there's only enough content for two books total. Preview (in French) here; click the lil' up arrow at the bottom of the cover.

Orange: And don't forget the manhua (albeit originally published in France)! Also from Tokyopop, this is a $14.99 full-color book by Chinese digital media artist 'Benjamin,' a 144-page story of a suicidal girl who doesn't believe in a single damned thing in her colorful world. Also presented in the large(r) format. Preview here; good interview with the artist here.

Manhwa 100: The New Era for Korean Comics: Ah hell, let's be really multicultural this week - here's a $19.99 compendium of samples 'n info concerning 100 recent Korean comics of every genre and style. From Netcomics; 248 pages.

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire Vol. 2 (of 2): Wrapping up IDW's b&w reprint effort for writer/artist William Messner-Loebs' much-admired 1983-86 historical fiction adventure series (not something you see every day) with a 288-page, $19.99 package. I don't think this includes the subsequent, unfinished Journey: Wardrums revival miniseries, so you might have to track down those two extant Fantagraphics issues if you're in a comprehensive mood.

glamourpuss #5: Hey, Dave Sim used to publish Journey before Fantagraphics did! God, that was such a great segue. Fantastic. This is another issue of glamourpuss, which is a comic book about the history of photorealist comics art in newspaper strips that's also a pretty girl pin-up project and a parody of material vanity. Wordless preview here.

Criminal Vol. 4: Bad Night: The newest softcover collection of Ed Brubaker's & Sean Phillips' creation, this time taking a swing at the ol' "lovesick dope led to ruin by a femme fatale" routine. Unless it doesn't. Spoiler-loaded review here. Good as always; $14.95.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #3 (of 6): Gabriel Bá.

Punisher: War Zone #6 (of 6): Ennis, Dillon.

Dead Ahead #2 (of 3): Alex Niño. Zombies, water.

Berserk Vol. 27: Kentaro Miura. Blades, armor. Still at 33 in Japan.

Crossed #3 (of 9): Horrible gore and liquids from the body. Writer Garth Ennis and publisher Avatar also have a $19.99 trade for Streets of Glory, a mostly straight-on, death-of-the-wild type of Old West gunfighter thing with artist Mike Wolfer.

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: Dear Billy #1 (of 3): Being the latest in writer Ennis' Dynamite Comics continuation of his old War Story series from Vertigo, which seems to have also developed into a focused effort to write female protagonists (not a common thing in Ennis' bibliography). This time the conflict sees a nurse plunged into tragedy during the 1942 Japanese invasion of Singapore, then set on revenge during a romance with a wounded British pilot. Art by Peter Snejbjerg, who's filled in on a lot of Ennis projects before, but never had a proper collaboration until now. Have a look.

Final Crisis #7 (of 7): Probably my favorite part of Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3-D last week was how it totally egged on the whole Final Crisis/Seven Soldiers comparison by serving as this Event's very own Mister Miracle - a thematically linked side-story disguised as an important tie-in, carrying the seeds of some future, possibly also-linked Event inside it (in the way Mister Miracle 'introduced' Final Crisis). Unless writer Grant Morrison opts to pour the whole bag of tricks into this crisis finale, his last comics work until April. It's drawn by Superman Beyond's own Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy & Tom Nguyen. Preview here; at least it's got a sense of humor, huh?



This Past Is... The Future!

The Caterer #3

This is a pamphlet-format, comic book type of comic, the kind of thing that's 32 pages long and wilts when you leave it on the edge of a table. It's from Floating World Comics, which is not one of the top eight or so publishers with Diamond; as such, you'll soon be considerably less likely to see anything sharing its attributes on store shelves, barring isolated groundswells of support for particular projects or a particularly adventurous-in-terms-of-ordering shop in your area.

Now, I'm speaking academically here, specifically; as far as I know, the only way to obtain this comic is through the link above. It's $4.95, since it's a color pamphlet in today's market, and shipping's a bit more. And I daresay that's something you'd better settle in for - the rising threshold for distribution by Diamond seems increasingly likely to cement the small press pamphlet (to the extent that any pamphlet-minded press in comics is large) as a matter of strictly boutique concern, with publishers/artists releasing tiny (or on-demand) print runs through the internet via unique homepages or mini-distributors to the especially alert reader.

It'll seem simpler than ever to just post things online -- and indeed, this very comic is getting just such a gradual release -- but I don't think the pamphlet will totally vanish, not so soon. Longstanding aesthetics of format imprint themselves on the expectations of consumers, and find voice in the desires of creaters. In other words, when there's something a comic is -- and to most English-inclined North American readers above a certain age, no is is greater than the pamphlet -- it's eminently likely that some people will rightly burn with desire to make comics 'as they are,' economics be damned.

And then, of course, there's those pesky comics about comics that are the comics they're about.

The Caterer #3 isn't really the third issue of anything; it's a faux reprint of an issue from a wholly fictional 1975-76 action series from the also-fictional Pearl Comics Group. The mastermind behind the project is British sci-fi prose author and satirist Steve Aylett (last seen in American comics with Tom Strong #27); the comic's 'writer' is Aylett creation Jeff Lint -- a hot-blooded wildman sci-fi specialist and subject of a prior faux biography and an upcoming faux documentary -- and the art (credited to "Brandon Sienkel") appears to have been digitally pasted together from any number of various authentic comics of the era.

So, at its core, it's like one of those parody comics you see a lot of online, where the serious words have been taken out and replaced with funny ones - the main difference is the elaborate nature of the purely visual editing, on top of the pitch-perfect state of the printing, all grainy pulp and inside-cover historical essays, with a handy bag 'n board included with your order! The seams in the artifice do show an awful lot, but still not quite as much as I expected from this complicated a mix (nakedly parodic ads for dead seahorses and a Suspect Package aside); I found myself presuming the original comic had to go through an American Flagg! style front-to-back restoration, which is a credit to the enthusiasm the book encourages.

The story? Well, it's probably best described as Michael Kupperman guest writing an issue of Flaming Carrot Comics, only with a totally different premise (which is something Kupperman might try anyway). Our Hero is Jack Marsden, a beaming blonde man of action who leads his friends into two-fisted scrapes while spouting anti-authoritarian declarations, distressing non sequiturs and thrilling exclamations ("Stroll on! Toxic darts - the stuff of life! By the time they come around I'll be king of this place and its meagre assets! I'm everywhere and in all things and that's fab! Stroll on!"). The supporting cast includes the obsessed Sheriff Leonard Bayard and ghostly(?) pirate(?) named Pete. And a bear. Nothing much happens, although Jack delivers a powerful manifesto to society and several people die in violence.

It's pretty fucking funny at times, if afflicted with a propensity for random humor (you know the type) that's seen a lot on the internet. It's also dense and wordy -- like a '70s relic from a smallish mainstream publisher, sure -- and nearly every line is some sort of oddball joke or funny turn of phrase, one after another after another after another, enough to get you longing for the measured restraint of Tales Designed to Thrizzle - and even Bob Burden knows to toss in the occasional breather! This stuff, in contrast, nears suffocation.

And yet.

There's moments of real, off-kilter beauty in here, most of them courtesy of Aylett's ambition to underlie his barrage of jokes with some simulation of the poetry that can sit in emphatically oddball comics; his Jeff Lint may be an jokey avatar of unhinged outsider masculinity (or so it seems from this small education!), but Aylett really does want to present his (fake) subject as an artist, less a zany font of meme than a potential (fake) entrant in some future (fake) edition of Art Out of Time. As such, he charges his work with a cadence, maybe not so strong that it emboldens the work out of the pocketed white noise of joke joke joke joke joke, but undeniably there to bolster Aylett's play to a place where you can nod along with his (real) assertions of Lint's (fake) genius, and fake an understanding of where he's coming from. Really.

Plus, hey - maybe all that soft paper and those old-timey graphics take a little sting out of today's economics. It seems curiously right paying cost and shipping to get a comic like this in the mail, reprint or not; I've done it with stranger and more authentic items, several times!

Sure. Follow that link up top. Buy this comic; it'll make you laugh. And maybe its backward glance will ease you into what's ahead for pamphlets like this - a costlier, more detached state of being and having, for us comic book lunatics who won't let the floppies roll up and die. I mean, how in the goddamned hell do you wait for the trade with this? How can the digital ether cradle it like pulp? What can be better? I bet Jeff Lint, out there in fiction, knows the answer is nothing; brace yourself for a future where your pamphlet proclivities are just barely less fantastic.


Two to Ruin Your Head, Film Dept.

Let the Right One In: Man, that really is the best possible title for this sort of vampire movie, isn't it? Rolls right off the tongue; and I don't even listen to Morrissey!

It eventually takes on another meaning too -- a third meaning behind the vampire meaning and the Morrissey meaning -- but even trying to get into that requires my ruining the whole movie on you, which is something I'm kinda hesitant to do, considering that it hasn't played all that much in North America (I dunno about the rest of the globe). Feel free to skip down to the next movie, which, admittedly, I'm also planning to spoil from head to toe.

Really, the best way to go into this one is not knowing anything but the catchy title and the fact that it's a Swedish movie about vampires; it's ultimately the kind of movie where half the plot is taking place onscreen and the other half is going on out of sight, with the first plot structured in such a way so as to deliberately obscure bits of the other half. There's also no 'gotcha' moment - you either figure out what's happening at some point during the movie itself, or maybe sometime afterwards. The film never blinks. I think I had the best possible experience, in that I started putting things together literally as I walked out of the theater into the night; I imagine someone who's quicker on the uptake than me could have a totally different viewing experience.

I was perfectly ok with the A plot (so to speak), concerning golden-haired junior high schooler Oskar and his life of isolation, both from his beloved (divorced) father and his peers. Oskar is often bullied by a local gang of classmates, and has taken to practicing knife moves in his bedroom as part of sad murder fantasies. And then, as often happens in these things, Oskar meets Eli, a girl his age who's just moved into his building with an odd old man named Håkan. As quickly becomes apparent to us in the audience, the pair seem to be vampires, albeit extremely ineffective ones; Håkan tries to be careful with his business -- quietly killing random folks and draining their blood into tanks for easy storage -- but he's clumsy and plagued with bad luck, while Eli is more prone to just leap from the shadows and bite people's necks in a blood frenzy, which makes her lose track of her surroundings, leaving her somewhat easy to identify.

Naturally, Oskar gradually catches on as the bodies pile up and misunderstandings compound, and young love inevitably blooms, especially after Eli urges Oskar to stand up to the bullies, leaving one lad with a ruined ear. Get ready for lots of quiet views of snowy landscapes and pained faces and the like, although I was rather surprised at how pulpy it got - there's skittering up walls and dismemberment and a Sleepaway Camp-style peek at prosthetic genitals and dude with half his face melted off and a sudden attack by a horde of CG cats (which hate vampires, as do all computer graphics). I know both director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) have backgrounds in comedy, so maybe I should have expected something peppier and balanced on the razor's edge of silly at times - I don't know. Eli even makes a heroic entrance at the climax (just when you thought she'd left forever!!), literally ripping bullies to shreds before she takes Oskar's hand and whisks him away to a new life together.

Yeah, it's just good clean, polished goofy (literal) escapism in the end, at least until you figure out that the doomed Håkan wasn't a vampire at all, but the last little boy Eli seduced into facilitating her vampire life. Is that in the novel (which I've heard is even pulpier, complete with vampiric origin sequences and dead characters rising to haunt again)? I dunno, but it's pretty evident from the movie, which goes to great lengths to present Eli's & Håkan's relationship as a creepy-loving, quasi-pedophilic vampire thing -- hey, they're all above the age of majority, time-frozen bodies or not -- as a means of distracting you from realizing that, under the same rules, Eli is a mature adult taking total advantage of the authentically 12-year old Oskar, who's frequently seen giggling like a much younger boy. It's not totally hidden, no - Eli's vampire makeup has a way of making her seem older at times, and I'm pretty sure there one bit where she's hugging Oskar and she's actually replaced by an adult actress for a few seconds. But the movie certainly never plays its hand, so to speak.

And that's fitting. It is, after all, a subjective piece, with almost every scene witnessed or overheard by our young protagonist, and quietly colored by him. It's not overwhelming (don't you worry, we'll get to 'overwhelming' next), so qualms and questions sneak through, like how most of the doomed young bullies seem scared shitless half the time while picking on weaker kids. There's also that voyeuristic glimpse of Eli's nudity; I'm told that in the novel it's made specific that Eli is a castrated boy who's since taken on the persona of a girl, although it's clear enough that the movie's Eli at least can't offer Oskar the straightforward heterosexual relationship he seems to desire. She might tell him she's not a girl, per se, but Oskar never seems to really accept that, regardless of what he sees. Well shit - he's a child.

The true power of this film, however, is that it never lets go of that thrill of childish affection, even as the awful implications of the film's plot starts to bubble up. You can watch this movie as pure escapism, and it will work in exactly that way, because it is wed to Oskar's infatuation with Eli as a mystery and girlfriend and savior - lucky thing this project was released the same year as Twilight, which is functions as a near-total thematic subversion of! Eli isn't much of a romantic; she cares about Oskar enough not to kill him, sure, and she probably even holds some genuine affection for him, but in the end she's a deeply needy person who plays the hero to keep herself going - I mean, how would she even get out of town without somebody to drag her around in her trunk? Good thing all that 'stand up for yourself' talk set off a worse cycle of violence, allowing for Our Heroine to swoop the boy off his feet in the end - and Christ, was I just rooting for the mass-murdering vampire girl to disembowel a bunch of (mostly terrified) teenagers?!

It's tough being a genre film that casts an accusing eye on genre pleasures, but this one pulls it off through careful, sure-footed construction and a powerful empathy for the often misguided longings of the young, enough so that you understand how even the nastiest stuff can seem wonderful and freeing, and thus how a boy can come to be so abused (is there any better word for it?) by an older person. One of the few uncolored bits of this film is that fine title: Let the Right One In, concerning your youthful intimacy. Beyond that, you must look to poor Håkan, warning Eli not to hang around with that young boy at night, stroking her face, and embracing her as she finally drains his broken, devoted body of its blood and lets it drop from the high hospital window. It's not a plot point, Oskar - it's the future.


Synecdoche, New York: The title's really important with this one too, although in an utterly different, vastly more mannered way. The opening credits are very fast, blinking in and out of view right at the bottom of the screen as tortured playwright Caden Cotard rises one morning. As anyone who's read a review or plot synopsis knows, Caden will eventually devote his years to mounting a gigantic simulacrum of New York lives (including his own) in a model New York within a New York warehouse. It will be his unfinished magnum opus, and he will spend much time in the movie trying to suss out the perfect title, which, of course, is "Synecdoche, New York," in that it neatly ties his unsatisfying prior life in Schenectady, New York to his part-that-calls-to-the-whole high concept drama, which itself provides the high concept to the movie.

That such a perfect title blinks in and out of view while he's groggy -- before he's even quite come up with the idea for his grand play, or at least stated it out loud -- is a crucial irony that itself represents the whole of writer/director Charlie Kaufman's bleak portrait of living inside your creative mind, never to understand the perfection you seek before death arrives, inevitably.

Oh, just get settled. I haven't even begun.

This is Kaufman's first film as a director, and he seems to have taken this opportunity for total creative control as an invitation to finally wash every single aspect of the production in as much of his unique vision as possible. You might think that Kaufman's works as a writer did that pretty well already -- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind aside, he's been blessed with possibly the most accommodating set of directorial collaborators imaginable -- but they all had a way with emphasizing realism within their own surreality (which obviously can be argued as a core tenant of cinematographic surrealism, going from Un chien andalou, which sets off its visions with passages of simpler observation), save for maybe the last 15 minutes of Adaptation.

Here, there's little of that. Starting from the film's mumbled, domestic beginning, bits of Caden's interior life begin to intrude on his waking world of living with his painter wife & young daughter and directing a local production of Death of a Salesman. He sees himself on television. He hears words incorrectly, and often gives the wrong response. Invaluable character actor Tom Noonan appears to be following him around from just inside the frame. He gets a knock on the head and begins to suffer inexplicable physical maladies. You might think the injury has damaged his brain, but do note his explaination to his daughter of the difference between 'sycosis' and 'psychosis' - a physical problem that only sounds like a mental one. And anyway, it's suggested that Caden is a hypochondriac, with a good many of his supposed physical problems actually being mental.

Then Caden's wife leaves him, and everything goes more than a bit nuts. He wins a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" Fellowship... or does he? It winds up being a lot more money than an actual fellowship, which is only $500,000. Caden recruits many of his favorite(?) local actors to participate in his grand show, and eventually marries his old leading lady. Maybe he really does too, but probably not quite in the way it's shown. After all, his new daughter never seems to grow beyond the age of his beloved first daughter when she was taken away from him.

That's Synecdoche, New York in a nutshell: a 'surreal' picture that's actually an unrelenting display of a man's subjective impressions, with absolutely nothing flagged as solidly 'real' after its first half hour. It is demanding, willfully disorienting and probably several times more complex than it needs to be to get its message across. It's also depressing and anxious, with a sad-sack lead character who weeps during sex and never emerges from self-loathing - you'd better be ready for broody male heterosexual staring-at-the-penis of the highest order, nonstop for two hours, or you're gonna be in hell. Heaven knows the themes aren't terribly innovative - Bob Fosse's 1979 All That Jazz is probably the lodestone work of such art-angst-fantasy-death, although even something as recent as Robert Altman's 2007 A Prairie Home Companion covers strikingly similar ground in a vastly less fussy, more immediately entertaining manner, provided you're ok with old-timey country music and not allergic to Garrison Keillor.

But even though I understand every criticism tossed at this movie -- believe me, it's no crowd-pleasing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, lacking Michel Gondry among other elements -- I still liked it an awful lot. Kaufman's huge, fictions-within-fictions story may not function all that well as a plot, but I'm not convinced it's supposed to. Rather, scenes cluster into little verses of emotion, each new one informed by what we already know of Caden. For example, he fancies a woman named Hazel, whose house is always on fire. Why is it on fire? Well, superficially it's Caden's ardor providing heat, but it's also his fear that something will happen to break them apart for good. There's even a man who comes with the house, whom she eventually marries, and while it's likely that Hazel actually does marry a man in the 'real' work (which we never, ever see), her husband is always imprinted with Caden's idea of "Hazel's husband" as latent to the danger of the burning house.

Sorry, that's just the kind of movie it is! Hazel eventually dies of "smoke inhalation," which obviously isn't how she actually dies; rather, it's the completion of Caden's fear for her. If there's any great and weighty trait about Caden, it's that he's utterly blind in terror over the prospect of death (the end of his creativity!), which has a way of spilling out into his subjective 'reality' when his parents die these impossibly horrible, agonizing, torturous deaths - that's his idea of what death has in store for him, self-absorbed as he is.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways too; my favorite parts of the movie were Caden's travels to Germany to try and locate his first daughter, who's fallen under the spell of a friend of his ex-wife's that he never liked. The woman never actually seemed to do much at the beginning of the movie besides smoke a lot (smoke as an element of pestilence and danger is a big motif) and toss off the occasional sardonic crack, but Caden's vivid imaginings elevate her to supervillian status, and his frantic search awesomely recalls Paul Schrader's Hardcore, only with the German art scene in place of filthy, filthy porno. Needless to say, the girl meets an awful fate too... unless she doesn't.

You've got to be ok with not knowing everything; that's the big hurdle, I think. Things don't have to all fit together. I get the feeling that a lot of viewers strain to attach clean, singular meanings to a lot of stuff in here, and that trips them up into thinking the movie is 'above' them. It's not. It's actually very easy, taken broadly - it's about life slipping away worrying about death. Amusingly, it's also about never getting anything done while sweating over thousands of small details. It's about frustration, longing, pain. It's also pretty funny in parts, and (considering how mannish its point of view gets) it provides a solid half-dozen strong, complicated roles for actresses of various ages, including Kaufman vets Catherine Keener and Hope Davis, along with Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh and, most importantly, character performer Dianne Wiest as an actress who plays a cleaning lady, and later plays Caden, eventually seizing his role as director and becoming, for all intents and purposes, God herself.

These late, strange contortions set the film apart from the rest of Kaufman's filmography. It's not atypical for the writer to cast unctious creative types as his protagonists -- that goes back to Being John Malkovich -- or to linger on the nature of creativity or death - doppelgänger "Donald" Kaufman dies in Adaptation, just as Charlie himself does in Hope Leaves the Theater. There's the writer's usual terror of abandonment in Caden's wife leaving him and eventually living as a lesbian, as well as his awe/disgust with artifice in Caden's abandoning the director's role to Wiest's (or, ha ha, Donald's) taste for juicy monologues and fist-pumping drama.

But never have these obsessions seemed so complex; Caden might hate his ex-wife for leaving him, but his daughter's dying(?) words eventually couple with Wiest-as-Caden's more poppy/revealing ruminations on her own life to suggest his own secret, possibly homosexual longings, something he could never say, but can be subtly revealed through Kaufman's construct. His abandonment of the grand project seems more a surrender to instinct, a desire for no more thinking, regardless of whether his creation is no longer sufficiently 'real' - needless to say, nothing in Kaufman's film is 'real' anyway, except for everything! It all reminds me of a comment my younger brother once made, that Charlie Kaufman's 'surreal' pictures seemed far more real to him than any reality television; don't we all spend so much of our lives inside our own heads?

It seemed to work on the audience I was with. By the time the city-within-a-city becomes a ruined wasteland, as a metaphor for an old man (so worried about an early death!) outliving all his friends and acquaintances, left with nothing but memories and shadows of old loves, actors playing people, don't ya know, and Wiest, now likely dead and fused completely with Caden's soul, launches into another knock 'em out monologue about how we're all essentially the same useless, ineffective bits of walking nonsense in the face of universal time, the crowd became totally rapt, sitting in shock through the closing credits.

That's not what you often see from such a comprehensive address of artificiality-as-authenticity, but jesus fuck did it land in the end. I thought about this movie for a long time after I left, and I wonder if it won't seem totally different when I see it again. What a glorious, troubling mess, like what I see when I close my eyes.


Finally back home.

*Not a lot of action on this site recently; that'll change soon. Tomorrow I'll probably (finally!) have up my review of Synecdoche, New York, once my analysis is somewhat less convoluted than the movie itself. I liked it a lot, though, even if it's probably not quite my favorite Charlie Kaufman - that's still a dead heat between 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 2005's Hope Leaves the Theater (his radio drama thing).

Which is pretty funny, since Eternal Sunshine is probably his most tightly collaborative thing -- you can totally read the film with either Kaufman or Michel Gondry as auteur; it fits in perfectly with both bodies of work -- while Hope is maybe his most direct (pure?) work. Certainly his most stripped-down, with the confines of the radio forcing his usual fascination with artifice into some worthwhile boundaries while knocking down some others. It's also his funniest piece, probably; any bit with Meryl Streep screaming profanities into the audience is pretty much gold. It's still a little overreaching, falling apart a teeny bit in the end, and a bit chummy in its celebrity bemusement for my taste.

Still worth tracking down, though - there shouldn't be any way a woman having cybersex with her late father through the fabric of time (if only allusively) should somehow land as heartbreaking, but the guy pulls it off.

What am I talking about?


Final Crisis #6 (of 7) (at The Savage Critics)

Gus and His Gang (at Bookforum)


Robot 6 asked people what they were reading last week, and I wound up talking about Milestone Media comics and Ryoichi Ikegami; good times.

*Deal$ Dept: Hey, remember that gigantic two-volume slipcased Gary Panter monograph that PictureBox put out? The 688-page monster I dragged all over NYC as per the unforgettable comedy triumph of my MacArthur Genius Grant-winning 2008 New York Comic-Con report? Half of it's a huge honking sketchbook?

Go buy it now for $30.00 (thirty bucks).

Cheap! (as they say in the magazines)

*I don't recall seeing The Comics Journal #295 on Diamond's list last week -- and I don't see it this week either -- but it apparently hit stores? I have a review of Dark Horse's Herbie Archives project in there. Plus: Sean Collins interviews Brian K. Vaughan, Rob Clough interviews John Kerschbaum, and Paul Karasik interviews (the awesome) Gipi. Look around for it while scanning -


Oishinbo Vol. 1: Japanese Cuisine: I think almost everyone reading this site is aware by now that the North American impression of manga is pretty limited, going by the stuff that's been published in English. Lots and lots of shōnen and shōjo series, with a smattering of action-heavy pieces aimed at older guys and the occasional arty project or women-targeted piece. Yet there so much more out there - gambling manga and business manga and television documentary tie-in manga and newspaper gag manga and biographical manga and a hundred other things. Like food manga. Hence, in an effort to close the gap a small ways, VIZ is proud to present Tetsu Kariya's & Akira Hanasaki's very, very, very long-lived saga of a newspaper reporter's neverending quest to track down the greatest tastes in Japan and prepare the Ultimate Menu. It's been ongoing since 1983, and is currently up to a hale and hearty vol. 102; consequently, this $12.99, 272-page debut volume will pick and choose stories covering the basics of Japanese cooking (rice, green tea, etc.), while future volumes will compile segments relating to certain themes (vol. 2: sake; vol. 3: noodles). I am unreasonably excited to read this.

Miss Don't Touch Me: A two-in-one NBM edition from an ongoing French series by writer 'Hubert' and artist(s) 'Kerascoet' (Marie Pommepuy & Sebastien Cosset), a frothy suspense thing involving a maid-turned-chaste-prostitute on the hunt for her sister's killer. I think this one covers an entire storyline? It's $14.95 for 96 pages. Sneak peek.

Never As Bad As You Think: A 64-page color hardcover, collecting Kathryn & Stuart Immonen's 2006 webcomic, following various human and non-human relationship troubles in a freewheeling manner. From Boom! Studios; $15.99. Preview here.

Ted McKeever Library Book 2: Eddy Current: The Complete Series + Lost Tales: The newest in Image's line of deluxe reprints for the popular artist, this time crunching the entirety of his 12-issue, 1987-88 series from Mad Dog Graphics into a $34.99, 358-page hardcover, with a bunch of added bonuses that I presume weren't in the old 1991 Dark Horse hardcover. It's the story of a mental patient and his 12-hour adventure to save the world, all before bed-check. Have a look.

Flaming Carrot Collected Vol. 1: And in other '80s reprints updates, here's a spanking new 128-page limited edition signed hardcover (850 copies only) from Bob Burden Productions, putting together early issues of the famous Flaming Carrot Comics with a new 10-page story, an introduction by Dave Sim (the series' original publisher, you'll recall) and a special surprise just for you. It's $49.95.

Mysterius: The Unfathomable #1 (of 6): Maybe it's noteworthy enough that WildStorm appears to be releasing a new miniseries that has nothing to do with shared-universe superheroes or properties from some other medium, but a new Jeff Parker project requires a mention. Tom Fowler draws this set of stories surrounding a boorish master of weird magic who returns to enchant the present day. Preview here.

Ruins: So it's come to this. An honest-to-god, all-in-one edition of writer Warren Ellis' 1995 pisstake on Marvels, an alternately 'realistic' take on All Your Favorites, charting a doomed photographer's journey through a world where all of these fucking horrible radiation accidents and super-powered crazies and out-of-control military experiments and shit have dragged the world straight into hell. It's a one-joke comic, granted, and badly troubled in production - I think it was first slated as a What If...? back-up, then a four-issue miniseries, then it got cut in half, and then artists Cliff & Terese Nielsen separated, necessating the substitution of Chris Moeller, whose style wasn't even remotely similar. But it's got some oddly affecting moments (some of which later found themselves recycled into Planetary), and you've gotta give Ellis some credit for being way ahead of the pack in putting a thick scratch on the Superheroes! Are! Modern! Myths! gloss of the Alex Ross aesthetic. I always liked the ending too. Only $4.99!

Frank Frazetta's Moon Maid: Another in Image's long line of Frazetta-based comics, this time a Jay Fotos-written $3.99 one-off based oHOLY SHIT IT'S TIM VIGIL!! Oh my gosh, when was the last time he showed up in the front of Previews? Never?! Did you know Faust is still ongoing? Like, the most recent issue (#13) came out in 2005? I think there's two left to come? Tim Vigil? Tim Vigil! Preview!

Tokyo Days, Bangkok Nights: It's not too obvious at first, but this is actually a collection of two of those old Vertigo Pop! miniseries about young folks and pop culture in various lands, 2002's Vertigo Pop! Tokyo and 2003's Vertigo Pop! Bangkok. Both are written by Jonathan Vankin, with art by the late Seth Fisher (Tokyo) and Giuseppe Camuncoli & Shawn Martinbrough (Bangkok). A 192-page color softcover; $19.99. No sign of Peter Milligan's & Philip Bond's Vertigo Pop! London, in case you were curious.

Path of the Assassin Vol. 14 (of 15): Bad Blood Part 1 (of 2): Hell yeah, you know the endgame's here when I'm breaking out double parentheses. The time will soon come when Dark Horse is no longer releasing Kazuo Koike/Goseki Kojima swordplay comics every few months, so press this $9.95, 304-page package to your bosom and whistle thanks down the demon's path. I bet a guy in an awesome hat will address people in a forceful manner this volume. Oh boy, I was right!

Gantz Vol. 3: On the other hand, Gantz will probably run as long as that series with the hungry newpaper guy, unless everyone stops buying it; the sucker's up to vol. 24 in Japan. Still, it's not like we're drowning in hard-edged sci-fi blood 'n grime manga these days - Dark Horse is totally keeping that torch burning. Writer/artist Hiroya Oku presents: should-be-dead assassins in black bend at the whim of a sphere of mystery! I bet there's violence in this one! Witness the tension.

Real Vol. 3: Basketball from Takehiko Inoue can command your week.

Gon Vol. 7 (of 7): Or, you know, a little dinosaur that has cute fights and gets into trouble. No words, no continuity, no fuss. Boy, that Masashi Tanaka can draw. Only $5.99 for 176 pages too; collect 'em all.

Black Jack Vol. 3 (of 17): No, forget everything else. You want another 300+ pages of Osamu Tezuka's medical mayhem for a scant $16.95. Oh my god, this one's got the story with the dingoes!! Just buy it! BUY IT. Big preview here.

Hellblazer #251: Kicking off Peter Milligan's run as the series' new writer; probably the best moment to jump on for the next year and change, at least. John Constantine faces the union-busting of his past. Art by the aforementioned Giuseppe Camuncoli, with Stefano Landini.

100 Bullets #99 (of 100): Anyone need a reload?

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: The Night Witches #3 (of 3): Wrapping up this tale of Soviet flying women in WWII; anticipate pain. Preview.

Punisher: Frank Castle MAX #66: Yeah, they changed the title. Presumably so everyone who missed the last 65 issues and can't locate the huge black MAX logo won't get it confused with the Marvel U-set The Punisher, which is actually the newly relaunched Punisher War Journal. Or is it a Diamond thing? Anyway, this is the start of a new storyline by a new creative team, writer Duane Swierczynski (a writer of crime prose who's been doing a lot of Marvel stuff lately, like Cable and The Immortal Iron Fist) and artist Michel Lacombe (with colorist Val Staples); Frank's been injected with a serum that'll kill him in six hours, so he decides to appreciate the finer shootings in life. Preview.

Conan the Cimmerian #7: Last Richard Corben issue, although regular artist Tomás Giorello's in there too.

Madman Atomic Comics #13: Allred. "WARNING: When you read this issue, prepare to have your brain do a flip in your skull!"

Superman/Batman Annual #3: Huh, another Len Wein script. That's something.

Batman: The Strange Deaths of Batman: Aw jeez, I didn't like Final Crisis #6 very much, but at least DC's showing some good humor: a 160-page, $19.99 softcover collection of various 'deaths' of Batman across the decades. Die and die again, Dark Knight!

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3-D #2 (of 2): Yes yes, this, but - how about something we all can agree on? A release date has now been set for Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye #1 (of 3)! April 1st, no less! And it's 40 pages!! Hurry, Seaguy... we need you more than ever. But for now, we've got the conclusion to writer Grant Morrison's Supermen -of-many-universes saga, which might be present to add thematic shading to the Event's whole, although it could always nudge a plot point that's due back later. Art by Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy, who'll also be taking on next week's(!) finale to Final Crisis proper.



Me, Free

*Hey, I've got a review of Chris(tophe) Blain's Gus and His Gang (one of my favorites of 2008) in the new issue of Bookforum; it's my first piece for that fine publication. You can read it online here. Hope it's to your liking! (and don't miss Dan Nadel on Dark Horse' Herbie Archives series either)

*Also, in case you haven't yet heard, issue #3 of the newspaper-about-funnies Comics Comics is now online, including my ode to the early weeks of Bud Fisher's famous early 20th century newspaper strip, Mutt and Jeff. Lots of other stuff in there too, including Dan Nadel's critique of the Masters of American Comics exhibition, Tim Hodler on works by Steve Gerber, Guy Davis interviewed by Sammy Harkham, an essay by Kim Deitch, Frank Santoro on Frank Miller's Ronin, and so much more. Never hesitate to click.

*Oh, and I've got a Final Crisis #6 review right here too.


I heard this stuff makes you a scholar, or at least a skald.

*It's tough getting the pep back in your step.


The Winter Men Winter Special


Netflix Black Notebook #2 (starring Twentynine Palms and Kai Doh Maru - French arthouse crypto-porn and CGI anime, together at last)

*Manga News of Paramount Import Dept: Ok, ok, hang on - we'll be getting to the usual feature in just a minute. But I've got a little comics news I need to report right now. Something that touches all of our lives. Something great.

That's right. Your command of Japanese hasn't betrayed you, dear reader - it's a new comic by Kazuo Koike & Ryoichi Ikegami, the gents who brought us the searing and immortal likes of Offered and Crying Freeman. Moreover, it's a side-story to Koike's & Kazuo Kamimura's 1972-73 Lady Snowblood (the exact title is Shura Yukihime Gaiden which translates roughly to Lady Snowblood Side-Story), which gives me the dizzy (if unfounded and probably absurd) fantasy that the book might wind up being Koike's 'answer' to Kill Bill, which was partly inspired by the 1973 Lady Snowblood movie, writted by Koike and directed by Toshiya Fujita.

The mind reels! It's due in Japanese stores on January 28! How is this not the top story on Newsarama?! Nothing is more important than this! I sure hope the Koike BFFs at Dark Horse are prepared to do the right thing with this one - fortune favors the bold!

God, the English-reading world could use more Ikegami in general. You'd swear the guy had retired or something from the way nobody talks about him these days. C'mon - he's Japan's biggest Neal Adams devotee! He fucking inspired Cromartie High School!! Did you not believe he'd be drawing comics until the very moment of death's embrace? Look at this:

That's what manga needs to thrive in these uncertain times. HEAT. Smutty gangster comics set among the host clubs of Shinjuku, aimed at 40-year old men (or 40-year old men at heart). This one's written by Buronson, aka: Sho Fumimura, who's worked with Ikegami nonstop since 1990, although you'd swear he dropped off the face of the planet after once upon a time well-regarded Sanctuary. Few even remember Strain, the duo's 1997-98 follow-up, presented in English in the pages of the late, lamented Pulp. They followed that one up with 17 goddamned volumes of Heat, and they're currently up to vol. 14 of some historical adventure thing titled Supremacy Lord.

I mean, sure... in the abstract, I know why none of these hard-boiled comics are the sort of thing publishers rush to discover for us all today. They're long series, aimed at older readers, totally out of style. It's funny - Ikegami first became popular in North America because his style was so odd and apart from the manga norm, so western in influence, and therefore more liable for readers to snuggle up to. It's a strength no more, but I say we still need it; comics can use an exploitation angle, full of quick, vivid thrills for adult readers, tip-top nonsense, and Ikegami is the type that can bring it. Every time.

AND ANOTHER THING! How about this?

Spidey's flower died because his manga isn't in print.

Ikegami did this one with writers Kōsei Ono & Kazumasa Hirai way back in 1970-71, shortly after the artist's stuff appeared in Garo. Marvel did a partial, edited-for-content translation in the pamphlet format in 1997-99, but it didn't do justice to how profoundly fucking weird this comic was, a kids' thing entirely about gnawing personal guilt and student riot era socio-political strife, dour to the point of unintentional comedy, and sometimes astonishingly violent and sexual. I totally understand why Marvel might not want an unexpurgated release floating around, but that just makes me want it more. It's a piece of real, mad history, and only five volumes - cradle it in shrink wrap, slap a MAX sticker on top and show us what's up, House of Ideas.

And if anyone ever runs across Koike's infamous, loathed '70s Hulk manga -- maybe digging up a landfill somewhere -- give me a buzz. I'm always up for that.

*Fair warning - I'm putting today's feature together while sampling from a bottle of mead I bought at the Pennsylvania Farm Show last weekend, because I want to get older than old school today. This is how Pliny the Elder blogged about upcoming comic books. And I'd say this drink was the second most wonderful thing at the show, the most wonderful being a venison summer sausage molded into the shape of a football, so you can toss it around and shout "This used to be animals! All of it!"


Tales from Outer Suburbia: Being the new book from Shaun Tan of The Arrival; it's a 96-page collection of 15 short illustrated stories, with a daffy, satirical tone at the fore of its peek into everyday life. Featuring: "a visit from a nut-sized foreign exchange student, a sea creature on someone’s front lawn, a new room discovered in a family home, a sinister machine installed in a park, a wise buffalo that lives in a vacant lot... how ordinary people react to these incidents, and how their significance is discovered, ignored or simply misunderstood." Admirers of the universality-through-invented-iconography of Tan's prior work will likely be interested. Extensive preview here; lengthy artist's commentary here. From Arthur A. Levine (thanks to Sandy for the correction on the US publisher), $19.99.

Steve Ditko: Edge of Genius: He's still on the edge because this $25.00 Pure Imagination softcover production reprints some of his earliest works, 160 pages culled from the first three years of Ditko. Expect the format to be more or less the same as the publisher's The Steve Ditko Reader reprint series, if you're familiar. Samples here.

The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore: Indispensable Edition: I enjoyed the initial 2003 release of this George Khoury-headed tome, which is mostly a very-long, career-spanning interview with the Magus, sprinkled with various rare works (like a recolored version of the classic, Donald Simpson-illustrated In Pictopia!) and tribute strips from the likes of Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, Rick Veitch, Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham, Brian Bolland and most of the ABC artists of the time. This new, expanded edition promises added interview content through the present day, plus added arcana like Moore's story with Michael T. Gilbert from 1985's Mr. Monster #3 (I have a bunch of those old Mr. Monsters, enough to hit the letters pages pertaining to that particular issue; the most fun is reading folks discuss Moore before he was ALAN MOORE, as this overhyped or worthwhile young cat who maybe knows what he's doing, but he's not like the great ones of genre comics yet!). From TwoMorrows, $29.95 for 240 b&w and color pages. A big chunk of the prior edition is on Google Books, if you're interested.

Daredevil: Born Again: In that every week apparently must bring another Frank Miller reprint, here's a new $24.99 premiere hardcover for probably his most famous storyline, aided and abetted by the great David Mazzucchelli. See Daredevil lose, and then win! There's also a guy with an American Flag tattooed right on his face.

The Myth of 8-Opus: The Doomed Battalion: Also in reprints, here's a new, $19.99 edition of Gødland artist Thomas Scioli's 2003 outing for his solo Kirby-inspired cosmic adventure series. A 110-page b&w softcover.

Bone Color Edition Vol. 9 (of 9): Crown of Horns: But probably the most popular reprint series of them all (at least concerning contemporary comics) is around this week too, polishing off a newly radiant Scholastic release of Jeff Smith's much-loved fantasy series. This was a full-blown economic second life for the title, and I suspect everyone involved is really happy with how it turned out. Your $19.99 or $9.99 will get you the hard or softcover edition of your choice.

MOME Vol. 7 Thru 10 Pack: But why reprint anything when you can pack 'em up? Jeez, $44.85 is a nice price for four editions of the Fantagraphics house anthology, which'll cover the whole of Jim Woodring's The Lute String and the last 2/3rds of Lewis Trondheim's retirement-from-comics rumination At Loose Ends (with an invaluable glossary of names by Kim Thompson), and various standout short works from the likes of Tom Kaczynski, Dash Shaw, Eleanor Davis, Al Columbia and more. I reviewed them all.

Punisher: War Zone #5 (of 6): Ennis & Dillon.

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #9: Concluding the Mindless Ones storyline.

Amazing Spider-Man #583: If this was the Ikegami Spider-Man, he'd just glower at our President-elect, unable to speak, while thinking about domestic struggles. Then someone would steal his identity and knock out a policeman's eyes, and society would decay. Petals, falling.

B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #1 (of 5): Kicking off another Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis affair, now with Kevin Nowlan on full cover duties. Note that this storyline is the second part of a trilogy that'll have some effect on the series' makeup, or so they say. Hey, did you know Davis' old Métal Hurlant serial with Jerry Frissen, The Zombies That Ate the World (Les zombies qui ont mangé le monde), didn't actually end? Like, it's still been coming out in album format in France, and it's up to vol. 4? That's another thing we should probably have in English.

Army@Love: The Art of War #6 (of 6): And as one begins, another ends. We'll all look back on this and puzzle over how we got 18 issues of Rick Veitch comics (inked by Gary Erskine) in such short order, but for now you'll just have to enjoy this ending-for-the-foreseeable-future to his war satire from Vertigo.

Final Crisis #6 (of 7): Still final after all these months, with the added 'bonus' of getting to wrap up writer Grant Morrison's Batman run. Looks like it'll outpace Final Crisis: Superman Beyond too, which is about par for the course by now - according to Douglas Wolk, a grand total of one Final Crisis-related issue or tie-in has shipped on time since mid-September. Still, DC seems intent on finishing this sucker off before the month of love; next week sees the conclusion of the Superman side-story, while the week after is reserved for the final issues of Final Crisis: Revelations and the miniseries proper (which, you'll remember, will have full-blown fill-in art by Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy). I think everyone involved is wishing they had a machine that can turn thoughts into items by now...



Netflix Instant Gratification Journal #2

*Twentynine Palms (119 min; 2003): The big problem with writing out a reaction to as tightly conceived an 'art' film as this is one of summary - I always feel like getting too deep into matters of concept somehow detracts from the reader's desire to actually see the film, as if they could more or less imagine something along the lines of what I'm describing. Writer/director Bruno Dumont himself has described this work is especially broad terms, as both a horror movie and (paraphrased by a festival attendee) "experimental film in articulating sensation without narrative through abstract, dissociated forms," although I nonetheless suspect my spoiling the ending in another paragraph won't help anything.

This was Dumont's third feature, and his English-language debut; its reception was cool, though he'd picked up a good deal of acclaim for his French-language works (especially 1999's Humanité, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes). Its 'plot' concerns the interactions (or lack thereof) between two lovers, David and Katia, who're driving through the desert toward the titular California city. David is a photographer, on assignment scouting locations, and he appears to have taken Katia along in hopes of having a romantic working holiday. Neither of them are potential legends of emotional sensitivity, however, and the trip in about as badly a manner as one can imagine. By which I mean their vehicle is rammed by a truck, the occupants of which rape David, who then shaves his head and knives Katia to death in a frenzy back at the hotel room.

Oh, but more on that later. For most of its runtime, Twentynine Palms is content with providing long takes of desolate scenery, dispassionate studies of near-communication and inevitable strife between the lovers, and countless visual compositions keyed toward the theme of isolation - no option is spared, from bodies drifting at opposite ends of a large swimming pool to nude forms sneaking pallidly to lounge against massive rock formations, the latter scenario maybe capable of passing as an erotic reverie until Dumont makes damned sure to hold on the blinding sky for several frames too long, the characters make their second reference to burning and a 'cute' argument over whether to leave evokes prior struggles between the two, with their eventual departing laughs swallowed by the windy expanse of the desert/time.

So yes: one thousand captures of isolation in union, with a photographer as the male lead. Katia doesn't even seem to speak English very well, though we're never 100% sure if she simply chooses to force the English-dominant David to address her in (subtitled) French. There's lots of sex going on too -- frank, unglamorous fucking, often dabbed with David's frenzied goose honks of passion -- but both partners are always lost in their own worlds. Some critics have claimed Dumont constantly makes sex seem unpleasant, while others seem convinced that he frames it here as the only true human connection; he strikes me as more taken with all-consuming pleasure tantamount to self-absorbtion. Witness how there's virtually no eye contact between the lovers, with so very little touching until after the event has passed; a scene with David attempting mutual satisfaction with Katia while underwater winds up every bit as awkwardly comedic as you'd imagine.

After a while, though, the comedy becomes less intentional. Seemingly every little passage of happiness between these two -- from an off-road drive in the sand to a happy frolic with friendly dogs -- concludes with some kind of deflating moment or horrible mishap, or at least an undercutting visual flourish, enough so that the film takes on a setup-punchline structure I'm not sure is intentional, given the build of intensity Dumont is otherwise managing, solemn as stones. It doesn't help that some of his metaphors are screamingly obvious, literally so in the case of a passing driver getting annoyed with Our Heroes as they try to cross the street, eventually howling something along the lines of YOU ASSHOLES, THIS IS OUR STREET!! And the less said about a high-volume orgasm-as-pain-or-maybe-a-cry-of-horror-at-the-impossibility-of-connection-toward-the-heart-of-a-fallen-world sequence... er, maybe it's not so bad you can imagine the movie on your own?

But then again, what do I know? Knife-kill finale. Around then I started to wonder if Dumont had more of a sense of humor than I was giving him credit for, until I realized how tightly-wound his film was with bleak portent and recurring image; a common complaint I've read is that the violence 'comes out of nowhere,' but I witnessed all sorts of vivid anticipation of waiting danger, from the aforementioned shouting driver to countless images of bulky vehicles whooshing past with booming sound effects, right down to five or so minutes of Katia fleeing in horror from oncoming cars in the midst of the void of severed humanity (aka the evening sky), after damaging David's vehicle while trying to drive and witnessing a small animal getting crunched under heavy wheels.

Shit, Dumont even tosses in a smug bit of misdirection by having the thugs rip Katia's clothes off before raping her boyfriend instead, follows a vehicular rear-ending with person-to-person sodomy, and then gives the rapist an orgasmic yowl obviously meant to evoke David's own erogenous exclamations. The mark of sex as vessel for potential love or terrible violence! David! Don't shave your head! Katia said she thought that one marine at the ice cream place looked good with a shaved head but you wouldn't, and the rapist had a shaved head too, and I think this all symbolizes something profound about the agony of romantic longing in an uncaring world prone to random, destructive violence! Put the knife down, David! Don't you go die in a final extreme long shot out in the desert with a police investigator walking slowly away in a metaphorically charged manner!!

Ah, I'm sorry. But it all just seemed so sophomoric by the time it was over. It is a nicely-shot thing, almost hypnotic at times. I don't think I'd call it quite abstract, but Dumont's aspect of sensation is well-charged. It'll also no doubt thrill those who walked out of Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl hoping the 'conclusive bladed mayhem' gambit would become a trend in 21st century French-directed cinema. Could it be... the New French Extremity?

*Kai Doh Maru (45 mins; 2001): Back in the day, one of the common complaints about anime from 'mainstream' sources (movie guides, etc.) was that nobody seemed to know how to structure a proper story, the implication being that Japanese animators were particularly given over to valuing badass visuals over coherency for some reason or another.

Some of that was true. Some of it also was a tricky tendency among theatrical filmmakers to stuff too much content into limited running times. But much of it -- perhaps not unrelated to the stuffing instinct -- boiled down to a lot of early anime releases being OVAs, which hailed from a fan-targeted environment that valued the ready-to-purchase disposibility of short works, enough so that 'adaptations' of manga were often intended as little more than treats aimed at readers who wanted to see all their favorite scenes 'brought to life.' Which is another way of placing badass visuals over coherency, granted, but at least a purposeful one!

Anyhow, Kai Doh Maru reminded me of old OVAs in that way, except aimed at presenting the highlights of a folktale concerning a Heian Period youth with impossible strength who fought demons and became a famed retainer of the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu of Kyoto. This version also plays with the telling, changing the hero Sakata no Kintoki to a young girl merely raised as a boy, and cooking up both romance with Minamoto and a rivalry with an Oni-possessed childhood friend who doesn't realize Kintoki's a woman and really would rather stick around here forever.

I'm pretty glad I looked that up, since the show itself does nothing to hook in the viewer; several long stretches of dialogue do little but refer to what I presume are historical goings-on, and director Kanji Wakabayashi seems intent on letting the characters simmer at the archetypical level while layering on the visual impact (he later directed an episode of Masaaki Yuasa's visually restless 2006 television project Kemonozume). It sometimes looks nice - a b&w prologue adds some scratchy body to the characters to fine effect, and the washed-out colors of the primary action seem poised to give the show some sort of scroll-like feel.

Unfortunately, they also seem intended in part to dial down the detail to the point where Production I.G.'s circa 2001 CG environments won't look quite as basic as they otherwise would, and the project ultimately sinks into the dreaded category of a technical show-off piece that doesn't retain much of value after the technicals don't show off so well anymore. Maybe I just don't respond so well to old CG as I do to the 'charm' of shopworn '80s tricks? You can't revive the past, I suppose.



I'm stocked up on gas for this week's weather threat.

*So I'm glad to settle in and type things on the internet about comic books as I sway back in forth in this lukewarm bathtub that is the meteorological state of fear.


Why I Killed Peter (new Eurocomics in English, and the first noteworthy bookshelf thing to peruse in 2009)

2008 End of Year Toast of Twenty (a best of list, now twice as long)


various 'n sundry (Final Crisis: Secret Files, Punisher: War Zone #4 of 6 and Incognito #1 of 5)

At The Savage Critics!

*Anime Dept: Anime.

*Back to Wednesday for the US -


Wormdye: A new 128-page Secret Acres collection of interwoven comics by Eamon Espey, promising comedic visions of "the human struggle: work, religion, death and human sacrifice." I know exactly nothing about any of this, so here's a review by Sean T. Collins, who sums up the artist's vocabulary as "that one-two punch of cruelty to children and animals coupled with sexualized violence that we've seen from Josh Simmons, and to a certain extent Hans Rickheit or even Al Columbia at times." Could be worth a peek; it's $13.00.

Fatal Faux Pas: Yeah, sometimes it saves money for small publishers to ship a lot of books out at once, which means Diamond sometimes seems to dedicate weeks to particular sources. That's a long way of leading into this week's Secret Acres release #2, a $10.00, 96-page collection of strips, gags and drawings by Center for Cartoon Studies alum Samuel C. Gaskin. The publisher tells me it's "the definition of youthful exuberance." Review by Dick Hyacinth here.

Blue Monday: Thieves Like Us #1 (of 5): I'm not very familiar with artist Chynna Clugston's signature series, a stylish teenage comedy thing from Oni, but I know it's well-regarded among a lot of readers, and here's the newest stuff. Interview and preview here.

RASL Book 1: The Drift: So soon? Yep - it's issues #1-3 of Jeff Smith's ongoing b&w series about a thief's journeys across dimensions, in a deluxe 9" x 12" softcover format that'll probably flatter Smith's airy visuals (I swear the whole thing looks like some lost Katsuhiro Otomo-influenced seinen manga from a quarter of a century ago, which is not a complaint), although the story is still in startup mode. Do note that Smith has added a bunch of new art for the collection, in keeping with the proud Bone tradition. The page count is now 112; it's $13.00.

Me and the Devil Blues Vol. 2: Being Del Rey's latest 576-page chunk of Akira Hiramoto's fantasy biography of Robert Johnson and his sold soul and his mutant fingers and his friend Clyde Barrow and... I said it's fantasy. This puts us even with the Japanese collected releases, so don't expect to see more of this ongoing series for a while. The fee is $19.95.

A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lindbergh Child: Rick Geary's murderous new one, an overview of the infamous event, now in $9.95 softcover from NBM. Preview here; my review of the hardcover here.

Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie Vol. 2: The Darkest Hour is Just Before the Dawn: You'll recall Vol. 1 of this IDW project from many Best of 2008 lists that didn't disqualify archival reprint projects for arbitrary and wholly unfair reasons. Here's your second dose, a 384-page, $39.99 brick covering Oct. 1927 - Nov. 1930. I expect the same high quality as all of the publisher's Library of American Comics releases.

Agents of Atlas: Oh, here's something nice - not only does this 256-page, $24.99 package present writer Jeff Parker's & artist Leonard Kirk's 2006-07 homage to the Marvel/Atlas superhero Golden Age in softcover, but it looks to carry over the extensive bonuses from the hardcover edition, which is close to 100 pages' worth of interviews, designs, vintage tales from 1947-56, and the 1978 issue of What If...? (#9) that inspired the new project. Ye olde costumed heroes in the modern day, presented in an affectionately goofy style.

Daredevil by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson Vol. 3 (of 3): Scooping up the remains of the classic run into a 336-page, $29.99 softcover, along with the related What If...? #28 and, oddly, the 1986 Marvel Graphic Novel Daredevil: Love & War, which is not by Miller & Janson (or even part of a run primarily featuring them), but Miller & Sienkiewicz. Or is Marvel's solicitation incorrect?

Groo: Hell on Earth: Those of you still riding high on the return of Tales From the Beanworld and/or the news that Usagi Yojimbo is getting one of those big-ass $95.00 omnibus collections (from Fantagraphics) will do well to note that this Sergio Aragonés creation is still going strong, and now has a new $17.95 softcover collecting a 2007-08 Dark Horse storyline. The topic is environmental disaster in the midst of global strife, although I think that title is funny in any context. Preview here.

American Splendor: Another Dollar: And even longer-lived series turn up! This $14.99 softcover collects Vertigo's 2008 sophomore batch of Harvey Pekar life funnies, with art by Dean Haspiel, Darwyn Cooke, Rick Geary, Hunt Emerson, David Lapham, Chris Weston, Darick Robertson, Hilary Barta, Josh Neufeld, Ty Templeton, Warren Pleece, Ed Piskor, Gary Dumm and more.

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams Vol. 1 (of 3): I hadn't even realized this was in the pipeline - a series of $39.99 hardcovers collecting all of the influential artist's stray works, cover illustrations and short runs from the publisher (so, everything DC that's not Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Batman or Deadman). It's 192 pages; partial list of contents here.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters #3 (of 4): Russell.

No Hero #3 (of 7): Ryp, pouring on the hallucinations; I hope this whole issue is a superhero going crazy on drugs! Writer Warren Ellis has a bunch of other stuff out this week from Avatar, including issue #7 of Gravel (ending the current storyline), issue #11 of Doktor Sleepless and the concluding issue #5 of Anna Mercury (don't worry, a sequel's already on its way).

Sub-Mariner: The Depths #4 (of 5): Milligan & Ribic.

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #2 (of 8): Fegredo. Er, and Guy Davis, since this issue is starting up the 'shorter serial chapter + bonus backup short' format. Written by creator Mike Mignola, as always.

The Boys #26: This is a longer-than-average storyline, so we're only looking at part four of seven of X-Men antics. Preview here; contrary to what CBR's credits say, I believe John Higgins is serving as Darick Robertson's inker for the next few months, not as a fill-in artist. EDIT 1/7: No, CBR was right and I was wrong - John Higgins is this issue's fill-in artist, despite Darick Robertson's credit on the cover (which I suppose is meant as a general credit rather than issue-specific; a little misleading, if you ask me!).

Wolverine: Switchback: Aces! Another Wolverine comic! But this one's notable for being drawn by Das Pastoras (Julio Martínez Pérez), a Spanish artist who's got a really tactile, Corbenesque style going. I liked his work in the revived Metal Hurlant, and DC/Humaniods put out an all-in-one edition of his (and writer Carlos Portela's) 2002-03 series Deicide (Les Hérésiarques), back when DC/Humanoids was a going concern. He also worked with Jodorowsky on one album of a Metabarons prequel, Castaka, from 2007. This thing, meanwhile, looks quite nice, even though I did a double-take at the setting of 'Pottsville,' which does not appear to be the Pennsylvania city an hour or so out from where I'm sitting. It's about Logan hunting car trappers up in the mountains? Written by Joseph Clark, and priced at $3.99.



It's the start of January; let the nostalgia begin.

*All right, here's the 'best of' list. In light of the fact that this is a final, immutable talley of quality for 2008, and that all excluded works are likely to be withdrawn from circulation and promptly burned for the health of the art form, I've expanded the list to 20 items rather than the usual 10. Your favorite excluded work was #21.

As always, because I hate fun and quality, I don't count reprints or archival collections of material already published in English. Er, except for Slam Dunk, which is in the odd position of being a restart of a prior, doomed translation project, with a separate English translation also available outside of North America. Further, be aware that my year's reading was absolutely not in any way close to comprehensive (I'm really gonna regret having not gotten to Theo Ellsworth's Capacity or even located a copy of Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy beyond a passing glimpse at a convention table, I can feel it) - webcomics and ultra-limited minicomics are a particular weakness. I beg your forgiveness, and commend this huge stack of lists to your attention; it's been a year of varied favorites!



20. Slam Dunk Vol. 1 (of 31): And why not start things off with a classic beginning? This has been a big year of translations for superstar sports mangaka Takehiko Inoue, although I'll cop to not particularly liking much of Real, his later, 'serious' basketball work; while gorgeously composed, it frequently, uneasily bolsters its gritty pretense with overbaked melodrama, leaving its would-be affecting portrait of errant youth distinctly unconvincing and slightly ridiculous (the same problem troubled another of the year's critical darlings, Inio Asano's solanin). No, give me Slam Dunk, maybe the sports manga of the '90s, and this year's only unashamedly juvenile comic that got me feeling happily teenaged myself. Inoue's high school is a veritable circus of unstoppable hormones, antic comedic anxiety and decidedly adult-looking boys greeting each other with their fists - an endearingly faux-dangerous place built to tantalize even-younger boy readers, and the perfect place for basketball to focus a tough guy's momentum and maybe save his goddamned soul. My only wish is that VIZ would release it faster. Review here.

19. All Star Superman #10 (of 12): Now that we're safe and sound at the end of all things, it's fun to look back on this already-revered Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant project and enjoy how cocky it was, all but begging comparison to a pair of noted Alan Moore super-works (Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Supreme: The Story of the Year), then handily surpassing them both. This was the best issue of the lot, one that writer Morrison specifically set aside to "condense and amplify the themes" of the whole work, becoming the one comic book you could hand somebody to show 'em what this Superman guy is all about. I'm not sure if it quite succeeds on that level -- it's ultimately a bit too beholden to the larger series' Superman is Dying! plot points to really function as an independent unit -- but there's no denying the poignancy of this issue's time-jumbled portrayal of a fading man from the heavens striving to act like a wonderful god, and the humankind of two universes rising to cope with a savior that's either absent or soon-to-be so, yet never not an inspiration. Review here.

18. MOME Vol. 12 (Fall 2008): Simply the best-yet issue of Fantagraphics' occasionally beleaguered house anthology, smartly splitting its obligatory 'established master' story slot between two L'Association giants, Killoffer & David B., both of whom bring (newly translated) works that play to their considerable aptitude for, respectively, slow-build confessional horror and dreamy allegorical fantasy. Toss in some short treats from excellent regulars like Tom Kaczynski and Al Columbia, plus a flat-out awesome piece of free-associative anxiety-of-influence comedy by North American publishing newcomer Olivier Schrauwen (of the superb English-language, Belgian-published My Boy), and by god you've got yourself a comic. Granted, not everything in here sparkles quite as much (the story of anthologies, eh?), but never has the great so outweighed the decent for MOME. Review here.

17. Speak of the Devil #5 (of 6): New Gilbert Hernandez, best-of list, etc. Yeah yeah. Beto also had some decent (if uneven) stuff in the new (and accordingly uneven) Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 1, but this latest Dark Horse-published entry in his movies-within-L&R project stuck with me the most, especially this sun-bleached, blood-drenched reverie among three beautiful knife-kill murderers, cruel and cool like the better exploitation cinema. 2007's early issues got needled a bit by some critics (like me) for being airy and insubstantial in a way that wasn't flattered by serialization. Surprise: it got better! A trade is now available for connoisseurs of grimily poetic slashin'. Review of the whole series here.

16. Kramers Ergot 7: Hey, remember that huge $125 comics anthology from Buenaventura Press everyone was talking about a few months back? It totally came out a few weeks ago! And its famous 21" x 16" golden oldie newspaper funnies size creates an odd tension: is it a particularly contemporary expectation to want the 60(!) included artists to 'use the size' in a novel way? Isn't it more fitting for cartoonists to just do their thing at grander dimensions, since working big couldn't entirely be a consideration for early 20th century artists who knew 'big' as the standard? Are these even sound qualitative judgments, given the unique situation such work finds in the 21st century? Still, the best of this project's short works carry quite an impact, and the proportions seem to have inspired a beguiling sense of optimism in otherwise famously downbeat storytellers like Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine. Review forthcoming.

15. The Drifting Classroom Vol. 11 (of 11): It takes a special kind of comic for someone to refer to its features as "100 uninterrupted pages of children screaming," and for me to nod my head and think "that's fair." But so it went for Kazuo Umezu's VIZ-published, high-volume '70s survival horror masterwork of schoolchildren trapped in a future hellscape, the sort of thing where you'd swear in vol. 9 that the only means of getting more over-the-top would involve robots and dinosaurs, and then vol. 10 actually contains robots and dinosaurs. But I liked the finale best of all, as Umezu shoves his saga screaming toward resolution and in the process swings his louder-is-nearly-as-good-as-loudest aesthetic toward the wholesome traditions of shōnen manga. An adversary extends the hand of friendship to a fallen foe! Kids join hands to rend the very fabric of time through hope and explosions! Parental guidance actually drops from the sky! Irony is cuffed to the mat with one swing! And then, just as the curtains close, it slowly dawns on you that a big ol' chunk of the tale has built into a genuinely moving allegory of a parent coping with the loss of a young child, on top of an eerily convincing cry for planetary preservation, and you wonder how Umezu did it, and yes, then you appreciate the potential of the unsubtle. Review here.

14. Fight or Run: KH Best of Year Book 1. I like that Kevin Huizenga spreads a wide variety of comics out across different publishers, and that each of those projects has such a unique character - if you're gonna be a pamphlet-format/short story specialist in a shelfbound era, leading a twilight toast for the independant comic book, you might as well become as many things as the brief format can allow. This is the artist's Buenaventura Press thing, an endlessly clever, always-kinetic adaptation of one-on-one fighting video game tropes to the comics form, gleefully banging its head off the walls of funnybook action as its funny characters either bang on one another or flee to parts unknown; the latter option offers some unexpectedly comprehensive victories. Some may call it slight, but if only every small comic was so individually unruly! Review here.

13. Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (of 6): Don't take this year's lower ranking of C.F.'s PictureBox-published fantasy epic as a grave omen of nosediving quality or anything - it's a different year, with different comics, and the story is obviously missing a certain shock of the new (although the new addition of selected color sequences is a pleasant shock of its own). There's still atmosphere to spare, and an uncanny sensation of place built from moments of sex, violence, connivance and conversation, not to mention an unexpectedly sweet sensation of shared humanity beneath the artist's easygoing use of magical questing accoutriment, and possibly the best lettering in small-press comics. And maybe a magick subtext I've totally missed? Seriously though, those colors are fucking nice. Review here.

12. Swallow Me Whole: By far the best work I've read from artist Nate Powell, a thick Top Shelf graphic novel keenly focused on the deeply underused theme of sibling love (no, not that kind, pervert). Fly-on-the-wall observations meld with inner voices and terrible visions as two troubled kids advance through the little-big issues of life, while the big-big issue of mental illness prepares to leap onto everything. Several outstanding scenes lead into a bravura finale of near-religious imagery and accordant sacrifice; it's only gotten better the more I've dwelled on it. Review here.

11. Gus and His Gang Vol. 1: You don't often hear about an English-language publisher's particular organization of a foreign comic having a substantial effect on the work's impact, but that's basically what First Second has done by paring up the first two French tomes of Chris(tophe) Blain's ongoing Old West comedy in one package. I totally understand why early reviews of the first album criticized the artist for devoting his tremendous cartooning (and Blain is outstanding with matching loose character art with perfect variations on a grid-based visual foundation) to cowboys-in-lust frivolity, but I also found that the second album did a stellar job of teasing out the deep longing that coursed through the frolic that came before, outlaws and villainy transformed into potent metaphors for fleeting liberation, gone as quick as the robbery scenes cut off by Blain's comedy of omission. Review here.

10. Omega: The Unknown #10 (of 10): I know I tend to give prose writers trying their luck at comics a hard time, so let me give it up for 2008's finest capes 'n tights comic, bar none, the conclusion of a sequential journey by Jonathan Lethem, aided and abetted by co-writer Karl Rusnak, primary artist Farel Dalrymple, colorist and occasional guest artist Paul Hornschemeier and not-particularly-secret uncredited bonus artist Gary Panter. In all candor, this issue won't make a lick of sense if you haven't read the whole series, but the devout are in for a smashing joinder of victory and dread, as plotlines slowly fade, alienation continues to simmer, and the series' ongoing critique of franchise decay (yep, it sure is a revival of a corporate superhero) mutates into a nightmare parody of entertainment from which none can escape, especially the 'hero.' But Omega and company did accomplish one seemingly impossible feat: a 'literary' superhero comic (and a critical one at that!) which nonetheless seems entirely Marvel in its vivid urban setting and intense angst. Review here.

9. Angry Youth Comix #14: Sometimes the simplest ideas stick with you the most. For example, this: the best work of Johnny Ryan's career, and another evolutionary step taken by his Fantagraphics series toward sheer comedy-of-atrocity dementia. Its whole basis is the elementary idea that slapstick pratfalls aren't very funny when you're the one doing the falling, and by god does Ryan run with it, all the way through puddles of shit, life-destroying disability, medical creativity, child homicide, cybernetic sex addiction, the cold-hearted agony of revenge and so many laughs. This may be a funny book -- sometime really funny, and disarmingly well-crafted -- but it ends up as the most effective bit of comics horror I've read all year, made all the better by keeping the comedy in focus. Scroll down for a review here.

8. Three Shadows: First Second had a really strong 2008 in terms of sheer quailty -- besides all the stuff on this list, there were perfectly fine works by European masters Lewis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert, in addition to a flawed but highly ambitious Prince of Persia adaptation -- but this was probably the surprise of the bunch. I suspect few English speakers had heard of animation veteran Cyril Pedrosa, despite his 10 years in comics, but he clearly devoted his time to building up a versatile approach to comics creation, one he pours out in the service of a sprawling I-can-do-anything story that circles the unlimited fears a parent has for their child, be they of personal, societal or political cadence. It's free-flowing, openly digressive work, maybe the least tidy of all the year's excellent comics, yet somehow even more powerful an emotional force for its flaws. You'll be waiting for Pedrosa's next one. Review here.

7. Ganges #2: KH Best of Year Book 2. Everyone on planet Earth has already sung the praises of this one at length -- lucky that I never got around to a formal review, r... right? -- so let me just assure you that Kevin Huizenga's Fantagraphics thing (in the large, slim Ignatz format) remains his most satisfying forum for blending his countless interests into fully-formed straightforward narrative works. Interestingly, video games are also the topic of this one, which follows a very Fight or Run-style overture with a more considered take on personal projection and gaming, and how fantasy worlds come to mark the places we've been. Moving, restless, layered - it deserves the hype.

6. Cryptic Wit #2: Both the best self-published pamphlet and my favorite humor comic of the year. Now, I'm not delusional - I know this latest Gerald Jablonski opus is the very summit of 'not for all tastes.' It's 32 (color!) pages of dense, exhausting single-page vignettes spun out of one of three ultra-particular scenarios, in which stylized, often self-referential rat-a-tat dialogue literally spirals around upwards of 30 microscopically detailed panels per sheet. I suspect it may actually be impossible to read in one sitting; I tend to hit one or two pages before bed myself. And I love it - Jablonski's work is pure comics, sprung from an eccentric but skilled grasp of old-timey funnybook humor for humor's sake, and his bizarre depictions of barnyard strife among talking animals and uncle-nephew chats about school have an amazing cumulative power, divined from an approach you'd swear could never work, until you're seeing it. Review here.

5. BodyWorld: Abhay's right. I mean, I liked The Bottomless Belly Button -- make no mistake, not appearing on a year's end 'best of' list is hardly a searing indictment of a work's quality -- but the Dash Shaw work that really lit me up was newer, more daring, more colorful, funnier, ongoing and free for all to read. That's right, the high-end bookshelf barons at Pantheon might have already snapped up the print rights, but you can enjoy all the newest developments as they happen, including the recent, astonishing Origin of Johnny Scarhead sequence. Free archives too! It's pretty tough to even describe BodyWorld at this point; I guess 'psychedelic high school sci-fi soap opera/mystery/drug comedy' will do. Just know it's got a strange researcher entering a curious town, and that Shaw's art is fluid unto ecstacy as it grapples with flying bodies and curling minds, and that you should go read it. Right now. As dense and thrilling as any pop comics serial I've read in 2008. Review of early chapters here.

4. ACME Novelty Library #19: Chris Ware and pulse-pounding sci-fi thrills - a match made in heaven? Aw, but Ware's an old hand at science fiction (I've eternally got my fingers crossed for an original Frank Phosphate graphic novel in the European album format), and there's plenty more going on here. Honing in on frustrated writer Woody Brown -- a character from the artist's ongoing Rusty Brown serial, although you don't need to know anything beyond what's in front of you -- Ware bisects this issue into a barnstorming comics adaptation of Brown's most acclaimed short story and the sorry saga of the author's coming of age smack in the middle of the 20th century. Both segments inform one another in compelling, intricate ways, smartly parlaying the artist's unmatched skill with reconfiguring his work to different forms (this was all weekly newspaper pages when first drawn, remember!) into sharp visual connections between memory and fiction - you'll hardly believe how Ware's tiny panels can go from capturing the claustrophobic hell of a low-oxygen chase scene to a joyful explosion of a man's memory as he races up a flight of stairs to an unhappy fate, or how the former so deftly foreshadows the latter. A dizzying, multifaceted character study via awesome craft. Hell, it's also got one of the sleekest book designs of the year, but that's kind of a given by now, right? Review here.

3. Travel: Yuichi Yokoyama, the man who fell to Earth. What is the obscure mission of his cracked studies of human behavior? Is it really to defeat the humanism of activity, and thus embrace eternity? Could it be an application of boy's manga tropes to the banal, illustrating the dehumanizing effect of the all-action aesthetic? Or is he secretly so in love with this planet that he can't help but imbue the slightest motion with beauteous, badass power? All that's for certain is that this is a PictureBox comic about a train ride, and all the crazy-beautiful-terrible potentials that lurk in the basic occasion of it all when a fresh-thinking man's your sequential conductor. Nothing else like it in the cosmos. Review here.

2. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard: It probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that Eddie Campbell has quietly become one of the most prolific creators of high-quality bookshelf-ready comics in recent years - the 1995-2001 iteration of Bacchus was one of the few self-published comics of its day to actually see release on a mostly monthly basis, after all. But it's still marvelous how frequently Campbell presents such fine books -- soon his larger series will be entering the massive omnibus phase -- and this First Second publication (written in collaboration with Dan Best) is among his finest, a top-notch work of formal mastery, comedic tale-telling and empathetic characterization seeing a young man craft the story of his life through adventure, error, fraud and determination, as extra-worldly presences comment from the margins and lively events dominate his human vision. As lovely and poetic an evocation of life ongoing as I've read in recent comics. Review here. And raise your glass to The Playwright, in 2009!

1. What It Is: Hmm, but what is it? Right now it's an increasingly divisive book from Drawn and Quarterly, which makes sense. Of all the comics released this year, high-toned or low-down, this has the most forceful sense of purpose, and the most uncompromising message. Lynda Barry's lyrical autobiography/philosophical text/how-to creative guide strongly evokes one of this year's best archival reprints, Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes, which is utterly soaked in the idea that the notorious underground legend created comics with regard for nothing but catching lived perceptions on paper. What It Is is much the same in attitude, but determined to whisper its words to the living, away from the aesthetic safety of the crypt. It's not just that Barry's work denies the applicability of critics or editors or peer review; no, it's just as disinterested in publishers, readers, capitalism, careers, 'making a living' - anything other than the creation of art as an act of primal personal freedom, a need of paramount importance to life itself. And Barry repeats, and demonstrates, and pontificates, and makes it all seem like the most simple and natural conclusion a person can reach, so basic you can confuse it for banal, twisted and turned every which way into a prolific beauty, a profound song. Review right here.

And I fucking liked the collage! Yeah, that's goddamned right! In fact, I'm calling it now - 2009 is all collage! Fantagraphics? Collage! PictureBox? Collage! First Second? Children's publishing collage! Kramers Ergot 8 is a 60-foot collage propped up against the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center! Ultimatum #5 is the Ultimate Collage! The Battle for the Cowl is won by writer/artist Tony Daniel and the fists of collage, via collage! Where's my paste? My notebook? My pillow?? Where's the Publish Post button?! I am personally killing 2008 with my two hands, right this second.

Oh, and thanks for reading; more words to be arranged in 2009.