We start with the ending.



Barefoot Gen Vol. 9 (of 10): Breaking Down Borders & Barefoot Gen Vol. 10 (of 10): Never Give Up: Being the long, long-awaited release of the final 270-page volumes of Keiji Nakazawa's 1972-73 boys' comics saga of the Hiroshima bombing and its extended aftermath, a richly symbolic moment for manga in United States, in that the initial volume of Gen was the first Japanese comic ever translated to English for release in book form, all the way back in 1978. These books see young Gen becoming considerably less young, as the story advances to 1953 and the budding artist encounters romance, drugs and a personal ambition that'll take him far away from the scene of the tragedy, though it naturally can't ever leave him - that Gen is more-or-less Nakazawa himself perhaps needn't even be stated by now. From Last Gasp, $14.95 each.

Afrodisiac: In which Brian Maruca & Jim Rugg -- creators of the admired surreal action comic Street Angel -- present a conceptual AdHouse art book supposedly not unlike Al Columbia's recent Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days, but devoted entirely to semi-simulated '70s comic book tales and franchise fragments starring a most pliable blaxploitation-style title character. Sean Collins recently read the whole thing as a commentary on the aesthetically insular world of early Bronze Age comic books attempting to interface with a super-cool, much more complicated minority culture by basically imposing its goofy tropes on the most sensational pop-visible aspects of said culture, to comedic (and perhaps disturbing) effect. I know I'd want to give it a flip right away. It's $14.95; video trailer here, sample pages here.

The Vermont Monster Guide: What's always worth noting? A new project from Stephen R. Bissette, here illustrating a Joseph A. Citro field manual to legendary beasts of the green mountain state; several making of videos are online. From the University Press of New England; $18.95 for 128 pages. Note that Bissette also has a new webcomic going right now, King of Monster Isle.

Hotwire Comics Vol. 3: The newest 138-page installment of editor Glenn Head's odd, oversized Fantagraphics anthology, a distinctly old-fashioned scattershot alternative comics production with a crew drawn heavily from Monte Beauchamp's old Blab! anthologies and Head's own shorter-lived Snake Eyes. Basically, it's a louder, more comedic, more visually-driven, and frankly more uneven sibling rival to MOME, although the promise of new Mack White, Mary Fleener and Rick Altergott comics is fine with me. Also featuring Michael Kupperman, Johnny Ryan, R. Sikoryak, David Sandlin, Tim Lane -- who seems to have been otherwise quiet since his intriguing 2008 debut collection Abandoned Cars -- Sam Henderson, Max Andersson, Doug Allen, Danny Hellman, Stephane Blanquet and more. It's $22.99; preview here.

Dirty Dishes: Your latest 96-page item in Drawn and Quarterly's petit livre series of small art books, this time a $14.95 platform for Canadian artist and animator Amy Lockhart, also of anthologies like PictureBox's The Ganzfeld and Conundrum Press' Nog A Dod. The publisher has samples.

Remember: I can't say I adored Orange, Tokyopop's North American debut release for Chinese manhua artist Benjamin (Zhang Bin), but I'll give it this - while many teen angst comics betray the hand of a looming adult artist presence relaying a story they think young people might relate to, Benjamin's work lacked any such evident filter, behaving in the capricious, ponderous, entirely self-absorbed manner of an actual moody teenager, exactly as I remember it, in spite of a nearly toxic application of mad color gloss to every damn page. This is a 2004 story suite, 144 color pages for $14.99, purportedly obsessed with doomed love, ruined ambitions and comics creation; preview here.

Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei Vol. 5: But if it's the lighter side of suicidal despair you crave, here's another $10.99 package of Koji Kumeta's wide-ranging Japanese cultural satire by way of high school girl ensemble comedy, now up to vol. 19 at home. Buckle up for translation notes!

Tank Girl Remastered Vol. 5: Apocalypse: It had to happen - the first of these Titan Books collections of the Alan Martin/Jamie Hewlett creation to feature neither Alan Martin nor Jamie Hewlett as primary participants. Still, it does have artists Andy Pritchett & Philip Bond, working with Phil Gascoine from an Alan Grant script about the imminent end of the world and Our Heroine's sudden pregnancy, as initially released by Vertigo, 1995-96. The fee is $14.95 for 112 pages.

The Complete World War Robot: On its way to being a movie, I believe, but the appeal is naturally the 96 square pages of Ashley Wood illustrations depicting small med and hulking round machines. Text by T.P. Louise (of course), published by IDW (as usual), priced at $29.99 in hardcover format. Simulated flip-through here.

Alias: Ultimate Collection Book 2 (of 2): In case you missed one of Brian Michael Bendis' signature works from earlier in the decade (2001-04), this $34.99 softcover rounds out the run with issues #16-28.

Batman and Robin #7: Meanwhile, on the other end of the superhero continent, Grant Morrison reunites with Seaguy/Seven Soldiers cohort Cameron Stewart for a sorta post-Blackest Night-related storyline that also figures in with the eventual return of Bruce Wayne, maybe, but certainly features fan-favorite Morrison stock players Knight and Squire, plus temporary sister title protagonist Batwoman. Inky preview here.

Detective Comics #861: Speaking of which, here's the start of what's probably the last Batwoman storyline in this title, after which the character moves to her own series later this year. Three issues for now, written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Jock. Have a look.

Frank Frazetta's Dark Kingdom #4 (of 4): When I was a child, I had a dream that an angel handed me a color prayer postcard of a saint, the identity of whom I cannot remember, and told me that I was to tear it up and scatter it on the street in front of my aunt's house. However, hoping it would grow, I instead buried the fragments in the dirt in the back yard, and all that happened was the readymade corpus became filthy. So I asked for penance, all teary and small, and I was told to wait 20 years and then identify the week of release of every new Tim Vigil release on my internet comic book site. Dear readers, the night of that dream was the night before Grips #1 hit the stands, and these days I'm sure it was really the devil I spoke to, but a deal's a deal; $3.99.

Kick-Ass #8 (of 8): This ain't the devil, though; it's just genre and fandom, and little incursions on taste reinforcing the pleasure of fantasies delayed & delivered. Kick-Ass was never realistic, it was about how realism is like fasting, and how fasting itself can function as not so much a virtue as a means of having food taste richer when you finally stop. Millar's kitchen is no less loving than Mark Waid's, or Grant Morrison's, but he's long ago understood that the real, mild spice is the most widely appetizing, and every roar in the theater at every little girl cuss and every bloody plunging sword is another growling belly; this is fast food, this is broad superheroes, this is creator-owned franchising beyond the medium's ratty county line. Me, I'm stuffed on fluff, and I'm local as shit, so let me break metaphor while I ready my bed: the problem with new superhero comics isn't that they're decadent, it's that they're not decadent enough.



I'm even more behind than usual so this is gonna be quick.



almost every comic I bought last week (including Orc Stain #1, Army of Two #1, Neonomicon Hornbook, Starstruck #5 and PunisherMax #3)



not simple: Being the start of Viz's major 2010 effort to launch mangaka Natsume Ono on the North American scene. I mentioned her a little bit last summer when I picked up her Japanese-only story collection Tesoro; I really like her art, a pliable series of variations on squat cartoon forms that absolutely radiate tenderness and vulnerability, two traits probably in generous supply in this all-in-one collection of a 2004-05 webmagazine series following a young man's search for his sister, the only bright point in all his existence. A big 320 pages for $14.99. Free chapter here; overview by David Welsh here.

Joe the Barbarian #1 (of 8): You might have heard of this one - the big new Grant Morrison project from Vertigo, with art by the wonderfully vocal Sean Murphy. A troubled boy is whisked away in an ill delirium to save the world of his toys from a terrible disaster. Preview.

The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives Vol. 1 (of 2): Hmm, can it be called a product of the Golden Age of Reprints if it's collecting prior reprints into a handier form? I dunno -- and I bet a cleaner example will present itself shortly -- but if for some reason you don't have Windsor-Smith's Conan comics on hand, here's the 200-page first half of Dark Horse's artist-specific hardcover project, with 'remastered' coloring I'm not sure about. Written by Roy Thomas, priced at $49.99.

Loverboy: This appears to be a new 128-page Vanguard Productions semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a small man on the prowl for the tall women he craves, written and drawn by 91-year old Dondi (and Wildcat) co-creator Irwin Hasen. Yes, that does automatically make it worth a flip-through, and there's both a $19.95 softcover and a $29.95 hardcover available if you're up for buying.

Thirteen Going on Eighteen: Now here's the Golden Age I know, hauling in a big (7.75" x 11") fat (336-page) entry in Drawn and Quarterly's John Stanley Library, this time covering a '60s teen humor series about girls as friends and rivals, with Stanley as writer/artist. I've read samples from this around, and it's pretty damn funny. It's $39.95.

Oishinbo Vol. 7: Izakaya: Pub Food: Say goodbye for now to cocky eating master Yamaoka with one more edutaining 276-page dose of hooray-for-Japan food power; you'll never eat half of this, ha ha ha! This time: casual eats. It's $12.99.

Pluto Vol. 7 (of 8): Woah, look what's almost done! Osamu Tezuka by way of Naoki Urasawa, screaming towards the penultimate. From Viz, $12.99.

Black Jack Vol. 9 (of 17): But if it's uncut Tezuka you crave, Vertical's got you covered with 320 more pages of $16.95 super-medicine. My god, when will the healing end?!

Vagabond VizBig Edition Vol. 6: We do know when this is going to end - later this year, as artist Takehiko Inoue has recently stated. That'll put the final tally of these three-in-one bricks at 11 or 12, depending on exactly when the swordsman series concludes. For now, $19.99 nets you vols. 16-18 of the regular run. Note that Inoue and Viz also have REAL vol. 7 this week (in Japan it's up to vol. 9), and I wonder if that irregular ongoing basketball drama won't be getting its creator's fuller attention by 2011.

All My Darling Daughters: And finally in Japanese comics, Viz presents a $12.99, 208-page suite of five short stories brushing on a thirtysomething woman's difficult personal situation after her mother (whom she still lives with) decides to marry a much younger man. From the widely respected Fumi Yoshinaga, of Antique Bakery and Ôoku: The Inner Chambers.

RASL #6: More of Jeff Smith and dimension-hopping desert sci-fi.

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: Happy Valley #2 (of 3): More of Ennis-written combat sagas. Preview.

Hellblazer #263: Your Peter Milligan of the week, continuing Constantine's India.

glamourpuss #11: Dave Sim keeps it photo-real.

The Zombies That Ate the World #8 (of 8): And finally, the end of this Guy Davis-drawn saga of undead co-existence with the urban American future. I think this also wraps up the DDP/Humanoids alliance for now, in that I'm unaware of any future scheduled projects, although it's always worth keeping an eye open, eh?



A little scant, but never too little.



Death Note (a commentary on Tsugumi Ohba's & Takeshi Obata's leanish, meanish shonen sensation as an emblematic 'mainstream' comic of the '00s, for what the term's worth anymore)



The Complete Torpedo Vol. 1: Ha! You thought the Golden Age of Reprints would sit these early days of 2010 out? You thought it'd rest for even one week, with an empire still to build?!

(Not from Torpedo)

Poor fool. You'd better just tithe IDW $24.99 now and steel your faith in this much-desired, months-delayed first hardcover collection of seminal Depression era New York hit man comics from writer Enrique Sánchez Abulí and artists Jordi Bernet & (briefly) Alex Toth, est. 1981 in Spanish-language environs. It's oversized and 160 pages, with a new English translation by Jimmy Palmiotti and book design by Darwyn Cooke. Then after that you can pick up IDW's $39.99 The Complete Dick Tracy Vol. 9: 1944-45 and Hermes Press' Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dailies Vol. 3 1932-1934, because these damn pyramids aren't gonna build themselves. Stack those comics bricks! Stack 'em!

Graylight: I don't know the slightest thing about this book, save that NBM is publishing it, as they have with two prior books by Swedish artist Naomi Nowak, Unholy Kinship (2006) and House of Clay (2007). It looks like a surreal, misty thing, and the solicitation tells me it's about a woman in (romantic) trouble. Your $12.95 gets you 144 pages of more.

Neonomicon Hornbook: Being a fancily-titled $1.99 preview of Alan Moore's upcoming Lovecraftian project with artist Jacen Burrows, a sequel to Burrows' (and adaptor Antony Johnston's) 2003 comics adaptation of Moore's prose story The Courtyard, except this one's actually an all-original Moore script, I believe his first with publisher Avatar. This 16-page item contains finished art, script excerpts, design sketches and more; as it usually goes with Alan Moore, even among those cold on his recent work (or his work full stop), I doubt many will be able to resist a little peek.

Blade of the Immortal Vol. 22: Footsteps: Only the latest $19.99 shot of Hiroaki Samura, its 232 pages paced a ways behind Japan's newest vol. 25. Ninja preview. Note that Dark Horse is preparing to expand its Blade line of products, with Junichi Ohsako's 2008 official prose novel Legend of the Sword Demon due out in a few weeks and Samura's (likewise 2008) 'Art of' book set for an expanded English release in June.

Silent Möbius Complete Edition Vol. 2 (of 15): Aw, but I can't blame ya if you want to pledge a softer $14.99 toward some sweet sweet nostalgia - errant X-Men and Batman artist Kia Asamiya's 1988-99 saga of cyberpunk occult policewomen vs. the demonic menace of the Lucifer Hawks in a cobalt tinsel Tokyo sprawl of 2026. It was Asamiya's big splash as a mangaka after years of working in animation, escorting him straight to the director's chair for a 54-minute theatrical anime short in 1991, which itself spawned a sequel movie and a television series. Manga and anime alike quickly found a home in North America, with Viz beginning serialization of the latter in '91 and Streamline Pictures picking up the initial anime in '92, as spicy action sci-fi could often be promised a run at the place in those days, and the artist always did like American comics and movies.

As a result, Silent Möbius got to be somewhat well-known, basically by virtue of hanging around and being visible a lot; truth be told, it's not a very good comic as much as attractively sewn together from bits of other popular comics, leaving it highly adept at pushing certain otaku buttons of its day by sheer force of genre collage. The original Viz translation totaled 12 volumes by 2003, wrapping up the core series just in time for the current manga boom. Now here comes Udon with spanking new editions, in right-to-left format, with the original Japanese color bits, supplemental materials and, eventually, a stack of unseen-in-English sidestory and prequel material, hence the extra three books. I suspect its ferociously derivative nature will only help it form a kind of an executive summary of period nerd delight today, while hearkening back to a time when glittering electric razor skyscrapers were as much a mark of manga in America as teeming bookstore shelves.

Creepy Archives Vol. 5: This, meanwhile, will push a different breed of reader's buttons, even as it sees the old Warren content (Creepy #21-25) sail into a difficult financial period. Still a bunch of nice Steve Ditko in here, I do believe. Still $49.99, still Dark Horse. Preview. Also this week on the fifty dollar old stuff from Dark Horse beat is Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery Vol. 2, the solicitation of which tells me Alex Toth is again somehow involved.

Human Target: Chance Meetings: Your Peter Milligan of the week, this time a helpful $14.99 reprint of his very fine 1999 Vertigo miniseries revival of DC's bodyguard-as-master of disguise character, with art by the late Edvin Biuković, along with its 2002 original graphic novel sequel Final Cut, drawn by Javier Pulido. This is all in support of some upcoming television show, which I think is a fine excuse for good comics cheap.

Doc Savage: The Silver Pyramid: Your random old DC miniseries of the week (oh alright, I think it's here to support the upcoming Brian Azzarello First Wave pulp hero universe), a 1987-88 out-of-retirement adventure from writer Dennis O'Neil and the green team of Adam & Andy Kubert. It's $19.99.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey #2 (of 4): Rushing dinosaurs from Ricardo Delgado. Preview.

Daytripper #2 (of 10): The rush of time from Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá.

Die Hard Year One #4: Howard Chaykin is writing this ongoing Boom! license book, now ending its first storyline. I'm told it's nuts. I trust there's shootings.

PunisherMax #3: Shootings here too.

The Muppet Show Comic Book #1: You know the picture rocket format can't be too close to the cliff when Roger Langridge gets an all-new launch of an ongoing series following a successful pair of miniseries, and it somehow feels inevitable. Yes.

(Nor are they Muppets)

Sky Doll: Doll Factory #2 (of 2): Man, Marvel's even putting out a(nother) $5.99 comic's worth of production materials from a French religio-media manga fusion satire that doesn't even have its next album scheduled yet. Apropos of nothing, did you know the final volume of Valérian and Laureline (aka: Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent), L'Ouvre temps, is due out later this month? All the better that Cinebook is still set to start a new English translation effort sometime this year, I hope.



I may be back to work, but the holidays are still running.

*Hence, me and Tom Spurgeon and one of the prime mainstream comics of the '00s: Tsugumi Ohba's and Takeshi Obata's Death Note. Four thoughts spring to mind:

1. I made a bunch of jokes about the Punisher, but Ennis' run on the MAX series actually was one of the 'series' I was considering - now that I look at the finished piece, I wonder if maybe the two should have been paired head-to-head to determine the most perfect expression of glass-hard nihilism in popular comics of the aughts.

2. Here's that Kiyohiko Azuma interview I mentioned.

Everything is for manga. While taking a walk, watching a movie, shopping, or eating, manga is always on my mind. And this is the first priority. This is the way I think. However, in reality, I could manage to keep manga in my mind all right, but sometimes I forget that it has the first priority. This makes me feel I am too soft on myself. I want to be an artisan rather than an artist.

3. In my excitement, I appear to have forgotten one of the most elementary factors in Death Note's crossover appeal: the $7.99 price point, making it absurdly easy for people who'd heard about the work to make the leap into buying it. Having copies in seemingly every big box bookstore in North America probably helped - such was the might of Shonen Jump mid-decade.

4. You might get the impression that I'm torn on Death Note as an actual story. That's true. But know this - that scene in vol. 3 (ch. 20) with Light and L playing tennis really really hard while trying to think ahead of everything the other might possibly be thinking, really really harder? Best Scenes of the Decade contender, top 20 at worst. You bet your ass.

Anyway, many thanks to Tom for prompting me to spend wonderful holiday hours in contemplation of jokes about teenage girls blowing up their school for yaoi. I didn't find a good one, but I'm a better person.


Quick One: Start the Year Fast

I'm trying to drop 20 pounds, so I figure I ought to keep moving.



Best of 2009 (reminder: all works that did not qualify will be withdrawn from circulation and pulped at the close of business Friday)



The Troublemakers: Oh shit, here's how you start 2010 off right - new Gilbert Hernandez. Specifically, his $19.99 Fantagraphics hardcover follow up to Chance in Hell (my Best of 2007 #1 pick) and Speak of the Devil (a portion of which was among my Best of 2008) in that it's a 'movie' that exists in the greater Love and Rockets world. As you can maybe guess, I've really enjoyed these project, and this one carries a double charge as Beto's entry into the emboldened crime comics scene of recent months: a sleazy rocker, a pair of nasty ladies and a big drug money rip-off are prominently featured over 128 cruel pages. Review coming soon, god willing, but here's a preview in which women wrestle on a dusty road immediately following the main titles.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.: Elsewhere in cockeyed genre hardcovers that put the "Fanta" before the "graphics," Dash Shaw brings a 104-page collection of color sci-fi stuff, ranging from production materials from the titular animated serial (his directorial debut) to various shorts from MOME and elsewhere, plus an all-new extra-length story. Definitely flip through this one; Shaw's fleshy, emotive, color-seared approach isn't quite like anyone else's, and the subject matter will (sort of) prepare you for Pantheon's collected BodyWorld later this year. It's (also) $19.99; samples here.

The Box Man: But enough of this gun shootin' and planet eatin' - what of the new bizarre pictures from Japan's world of "manga" comics? Enter Drawn and Quarterly and Garo veteran Imiri Sakabashira, a cartoonist and painter making his English-language bookshelf debut (he's also been in Vice) with what appears to be an all-new work, a strange and oozing trip report from some kind of porno kaiju movie geography. That's all I know, but the guy comes recommended by persons of good taste. It's $24.95 for 128 b&w pages; preview here.

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms: Being a dandy new $14.95 hardcover edition of Last Gasp's fine 2007 release of Fumiyo Kouno's gentle, generations-spanning story of young women connected to Hiroshima and its ever-present 20th century legacy. The artist recently won an Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival for the book's 2008 sequel, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni, which hopefully will appear in English one of these days.

Shutter Island: Well here's an interesting tie-in for the upcoming Martin Scorsese picture - a swift Tokyopop English edition of French artist Christian De Metter's 2009 comics adaptation of Dennis Lehane's original prose novel, 128 pages in color for $21.99. Preview here.

Olympians Vol. 1: Zeus: King of the Gods: The first out the door in First Second's new wave of releases, seeing George O'Connor of 2006's Journey Into Mohawk Country and 2009's Ball Peen Hammer (with Adam Rapp) begin a projected 12-book series adapting Greek mythology to an action comics style. It's a $16.99 hardcover, although I understand a $9.99 paperback edition should be around soon. In color, 80 pages; preview.

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Vol. 1: I don't think I can cite the Golden Age of Reprints when the last edition of this was out in 2005, but that thing's going for something like $160.00 on Amazon now; I guess the demand is out there for a $24.99, 112-page Boom! Studios hardcover edition of what appears to be half of Don Rosa's much-loved extended 'origin' story for the great duck character, which doubles as a massive homage to the good (great!) duck artist Carl Barks. A similar two-volume re-release of Rosa's related stories (previously collected as The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion) will follow, resulting in a total of four volumes.

Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea: Ah, but this surely counts! Yet another sorely tempting $49.99 item from IDW's Library of American Comics, but of a slightly different makeup, content to compile just a single, huge 1939-40 storyline from George McManus' beloved strip (est. 1913), following Maggie & Jiggs and their newly married daughter on a cross-country tour. A big (11" x 10") 272 pages, with the usual extras.

Big Questions #13: A House That Floats: A new $9.95 Drawn and Quarterly installment of Anders Nilsen's long-running serial of humans and (especially) animals skirting survival an a strange, bucolic place. Always worth a look as one of the few remaining alternative comic picture rockets around that doesn't do the all-in-one thing. Sean Collins reviews it here.

B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #1 (of 5): But if it's a more traditional $3.50 piece you're after, I doubt you'll go wrong with this new Guy Davis-drawn kickoff to one of those climactic storylines that crop up in the Hellboy universe's most prolific series. See it.

The Boys #38: And speaking of building toward things, writer Garth Ennis has mentioned that this series is now set to run for an extra-long 70 issues, with two more connecting miniseries on top of the completed Herogasm, which seems to mark this final (for now) 'origins' issue as the series' halfway point, mostly. Presenting: the Female.

King City #4 (of 12): Here's some good Brandon Graham reprints, sprinkled with new bonuses.

Tank Girl: Skidmarks #2 (of 4): Here's some colorized Alan Martin/Rufus Dayglo reprints, which I hadn't read when they were new.

Starstruck #5 (of 13): Here's some excellent old 'n new or old-made-new and certainly newly colored though not colorized material from Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta.

Batman Confidential #40: Woah, Sam Kieth for the next four issues.

Greek Street #7: And Peter Milligan too.

Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books: Your non-comics oddity of the week - a new Bart Beaty & Nick Nguyen translation of a 2005 academic tome by American studies professor Jean-Paul Gabilliet of the University of Bordeaux, analyzing the history, distribution and turbulent legitimization of our domestic stuff from an interdisciplinary perspective. I can't imagine this not being worth at least paging through, which you can do online via Google Books. From the University Press of Mississippi; 432 pages in hardcover for $55.00, priced for learning.



Most Equivocal

Here's an old truism: if you've followed a critic long enough, their year in review piece isn't going to be very surprising. Well this year I've finally found a way around that little hazard: not reviewing comics! Ha ha, finally some payout from that month and a half spent writing about French comics nobody bought!

As a result, this year's very exciting and highly objective Top 10 countdown is even more nonsensical than usual, although the more I think about it the more I wonder if this whole 'problem' is all the more fitting. I've never, ever thought of an end of year comics list as anything other than a necessarily subjective expression of a writer's experience with an art form that year; as a result, I presume the writer hasn't read everything, and isn't necessarily looking to include everything he or she has read. Likewise, I tend to take the ranking of highly dissimilar works, one on top of the other, as a means of sorting out what the writer values in the medium, how one comic's visceral impact, say, might outweigh formal experimentation, or how verisimilitude maybe emerges as more appealing to that individual than self-evident literary flourish.

These are the fine distinctions that lists can push to the front; that's why it's not just a few works under review, but a year. Granted, this perception tends to favor annotated lists over plain bullet points, and it doesn't leave a lot of room for lists by committee or vote -- I participated in one of those a few years ago, and god bless Chris Tamarri, wherever he is, but that was enough for one half decade -- but that just syncs with my idea of 'criticism' as offering ideas to hopefully enhance folks' experience with the medium. It's not the only brand of criticism around, but it's what I've always tried write.

That said, in the spirit of overindulgent explication that is my hallmark, allow me to offer some words on books I didn't include. C'mon! Humor the old man. Five years is fucking forever on the internet, and going whole weeks without a review puts me firmly in the semi-retired bracket. It's hard to believe there was really a day where comics critics would go months without writing. Anyway, they're all dead now.



5. Alec: The Years Have Pants: My main rule, in place since 2006, is that a comic must be appearing for the first time in English, in substantive part, in the year in question, to be eligible. No, I don't have an airtight I'll-make-partner-for-this definition of 'substantive' at hand, but then, this year didn't offer a lot of opportunities to explore matters of first impression, like what to do with Brian Chippendale's Maggots, which appeared in broken-up form in minicomics, and anyway was initially conceived as a unique item available for perusal in the artist's bedroom (A: include it). When in doubt, I can probably just hide behind subjectivity. See? What a great concept!

Obviously not to be included are career retrospectives and/or omnibus compilations of prior published works. In no way does that mean you shouldn't check out something like this entirely awesome collection of groundbreaking autobiographical comics by Eddie Campbell, one of the godfathers of the genre in English and a restless, inquisitive stylist. While you're at it, don't dare overlook Dark Horse's unexpected publication of Crossing the Empty Quarter and Other Stories, a lovingly detailed retrospective of a quarter century's work by the excellent, elusive Carol Swain, specialist in elliptical, metaphorical portraits of society's outsiders and marginals, with a few sharp departures into expressive narrative. Top flight.

4. George Sprott 1894-1975: Also obvious are serialized works newly available in collected editions. This hugely acclaimed book was initially presented as weekly pages in the New York Times Magazine (still online), and in fact made my best of list back in 2007. It has not declined with age, and benefits nicely from careful latter-day augmentations. Seth tends to get slammed online as a nostalgist and a snob, and his considerable success as an illustrator and book designer has probably started to overshadow his skills as a cartoonist in a serious way by now, but none of this affects the sensitivity he affords his haughty, flawed characters populating an adoringly detailed fantasy past of old local television and older, bounding adventure.

And if that's not quite the adventure you're looking for, well - I've probably written enough about The Winter Men by now, but it is always highly recommended.

3. Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941: And god, what of the Golden Age of Reprints? Chris Mautner had a nice rundown of the year's highlights earlier today at Robot 6, and I thereby defer to him, although he didn't include my personal favorite. And no, Greg Sadowski's Fantagraphics-published collection of pre-WWII superhero comics is certainly not the most academically rigorous item of the era - if anything, its minimal drizzle of historical context encourages daydreams about how wild and woolly early Golden Age costumed adventure comics might have been, even though I suspect most readers will know that it was mostly a ton of cranked-out shit, styled to fill space above any particularized entertainment impulse.

But that presumes two things: (1) that contemporary reprint projects have to strive toward well-cited education as a firm objective; and (2) that contemporary readers cannot tell when they are being given an impression rather than a lecture. The academic impulse seems increasingly prevalent - how many reviews honed in on the added context this book afforded its publisher's Fletcher Hanks reprints, above what it said about its genre's potential? The latter aspect is imaginative, I admit, but the capacity of today's reprint collections to adopt distinct identities from the presentation of their comics content rather than the content itself does not foreclose on the potential for valuable, creative excerptions from larger bodies of work.

There are dangers, naturally - to cite an infamous example, I felt Chip Kidd's presentation of Jiro Kuwata's work in 2008's Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan actively detracted from the fine comics at hand (although query whether it could possibly be better that the work wasn't presented in English at all, which is I think the primary alternative with an obscure project like that). Yet Supermen! excited me, not primarily for bringing Fletcher Hanks around to greater contextual sense -- although I liked that too -- but for suggesting a burning, manic soul of superhero comics, a reckless freedom differentiated from pulp writing and feature films by gnarled visual style while set apart from newspaper strips by virtue of a restless hunger to entertain quick and hard.

It felt like the start of a future, and the comedown only hit when I realized I enjoyed it more than any new superhero comic of 2009.

2. The Squirrel Machine: But back to the rules! Next rule, a very useful one: no comics that I didn't read, and boy, I didn't get to read an awful lot of interesting-sounding comics this year. People did seem to like this new Hans Rickheit book, for instance. I also didn't get to Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know, Book One: A Good and Decent Man, or Jacques Tardi's You Are Here, or Marian Churchland's Beast. But at least these books were somewhat well-covered as far as bookshelf comics go. Does anyone remember, for example, Laurie Sandell's The Impostor's Daughter: A True Memoir, the kind of big-ass publisher's Major Comics Project that could have dominated discussion even as recently as when I started blogging? Couldn't comment; didn't read. How sick with content we are.

1. [webcomics]: And then there's my own flat-footed failings. Like way too many writers-on-comics-without-a-disclaimer, I don't cover online comics nearly enough. Or, to be exact, I didn't cover any online comics whatsoever in 2009, which I think is a damning failure indeed for an allegedly catholic comics critic, particularly one that keeps yapping on and on about cultural differences in comics creation while ignoring the place where old provincial concerns hold the least sway. Maybe to be replaced by new provincial concerns. I'll know in 2010, I do so resolve.



10. The Color of Earth: I always like to start these lists off with a troubled work that nonetheless wins me over -- that's a critical bias, btw, valuing works with considerable (if sometimes theoretical) flaws because, impliedly, the work's excellence shines brighter for its handicap -- and what better selection this year than the opening volume of Kim Dong Hwa's trilogy of relentless poetic metaphor linking the stuff of a bygone agrarian Korea to female sexuality, both developing and stirring, in the person of a young girl and her single mother. Every chapter is a capsule, catching a scrap of time and setting loosely cartooned humans against detailed scenes of nature, emphasizing the fluidity of human living as something in concert with the biological inevitability of flowers and fruits and rain. Like the seasons, or aging, this concept never, ever lets up.

Such total absence of narrative self-consciousness is rare for a comic released in North America; indeed, this is maybe the easiest comic on planet Earth to poke fun at -- as per Tom Spurgeon, it's partially about "how flat-out naughty everything in nature is" -- and some will doubtlessly find its obsessive focus to be irritating, particularly once diminishing returns in both the basic visual sense as well as sheer narrative accumulation begin to set in as of vol. 2, The Color of Water, followed by The Color of Heaven.

Yet to me this first book remains a splendid exploration of the poetic storytelling potential in an ostensibly plainspoken, no tricks, no dazzle, one-picture-cleanly-follows-the-next comics style, and its metaphoric union of teen girl masturbation and a mother taking a lover to nature's cyclical authority is quietly, excellently subversive on the North American scene. That it might plant the seed of 'manhwa' perceived off-the-cuff as something other than manga's dumb little sister is a fine bonus. Review here.

9. Cockbone: Josh Simmons is turning into a fixture on my end of year lists, and that's because he won't stop producing the most face-scratchingly cruel horror comics around. This one was first published (and reviewed) this year in the Robin Bougie-edited filthy sex anthology Sleazy Slice #3 and then released as a standalone 24-page minicomic in a plain brown wrapper, and I can't decide which venue is more fitting. Possibly a homage of sorts to Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown -- or at least the child of profound influence -- Cockbone nonetheless rises up as a very Josh Simmons comic, witnessing another innocent fed to the hell of this horrible world and its ugly magic, spined penis and hallucinogenic spunk and all. Best final page of the year too.

8. West Coast Blues: You see, this is what I'm talking about. It was a fine year for crime comics, and you absolutely don't have to choose between Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Hunter and something else in the economic sense; it's a fine book, a nice piece of cool craft that fixes the source material's struggle between money-driven criminal forces in a monochrome period style that suggests stylish jackets and chairs forged of sickened steel, to say nothing of Parker, who is harder.

But man, I just liked this one more. A 2005 work from Jacques Tardi, translated to English this year, West Coast Blues sees a canonized master working fortunately far from masterpiece expectations yet well within his career-spanning affection for the genre. Teeming with fleshy characters prone to bleeding and puking, rippled with burn lines of existential dismay, the story keenly exploits how the thrills promised by bloody adventure outside the law segue into the terror of governmental systems failing to protect their cozy consumer citizens. Compared to this, peerless Parker is a captain of industry, and I guess I tend to root for the underdog. Review here.

7. Treehouse of Horror #15: Surely the finest corporate franchise comic in four seasons, and a stellar example of how a storied pop culture monolith can inspire fascinating, personal variations. It probably helps that The Simpsons really is a monolith, in that it's singular - I suspect Marvel's intermittently-compelling-at-best 'indy'-style anthology Strange Tales was hamstrung by the burden of dealing with properties that need to exist in multiple places -- movies, games, cartoons -- for multiple audiences, resulting in a jokey default mode of interaction.

The Simpsons, meanwhile, knows exactly where its audience is from its specific cultural position (and comes fully equipped with a Halloween tradition of messing around with the format), possibly allowing Kramers Ergot founder and project guest editor Sammy Harkham a firmer idea of how to direct the many excellent talents present. As a result, Matthew Thurber & Kevin Huizenga advance the show's characters, timeline and politics into doomy mayhem, C.F. mixes visual signals into disturbing comedy, and Ben Jones straight-up kills it with a magnificent adoption of the look and feel of a television episode for riffing on bootleg merchandise and artistic appropriation, two things readily on the minds of contributors to long-lived characters. Review here.

6. Cold Heat #5/6: So I guess it makes sense that a whole series stamped with Jones' fingerprints would rank a little higher, eh? The return of Cold Heat was my favorite funnybook surprise of the year: two double-issues of all-new stuff, limited in run and priced at a premium to face down the increasingly ugly economic circumstances facing 'alternative' longbox comics, even the ones where alien power shimmers in the sky and a teenage heroine smashes evil's face. Especially those, maybe. This was my favorite of the pair, blending Jones' outright giddy approach to scripting an action climax -- it's like hearing a friend throwing together funny lines and situations so enthusiastically you can't possibly let it register as a joke -- with Frank Santoro's geometrically loose-limbed visuals, a restless shape-shifter with an adamantium skeleton. The result is a comic as if projected by sheer will from a shared impression of genre.

5. Prison Pit Book One: Funny thing about Johnny Ryan - despite his reputation for boundary-pushing comedy, a lot of his projects are very old fashioned at heart. Structurally, Angry Youth Comix sits closer to John Stanley in its building gags and character business than any underground transgressor or post-'80s alt showcase, while Blecky Yuckerella is practically Nancy-esque in its laser-honed daily strip focus. And even Ryan's one-page lampoons a la The Comic Book Holocaust are marked with richly curved lines as fit for glossy mid-century panel gags as sketchbook shit-eating, which only helps the laffs along.

I think that made this one seem even more striking, as Ryan suddenly raced to the front lines of bookshelf-canny New Action sagas with an all-fight tome as internationally cognisant as anything by Brandon Graham or Bryan Lee O'Malley, yet wholly original in approach. The tale of a prisoner, a pit, and all the stuff destined to either meet with his fists or meld with his body, Prison Pit is as visceral and gory as fantasy throwdowns get, while remaining almost contemplative in its plain-paneled studies of bodily movement. And bodies are crucial; this story might seem decompressed like some manga, but it also taps that vein of wonder over physically transformative possibilities, of changing through struggle. Everything in the pit spurts, spits and pumps, which puts it nicely in line with the artist's comedy - if it weren't for Dash Shaw he could have titled it Bodyworld and ended up even more ahead of the pack. Review here.

4. Footnotes in Gaza: Hopefully in the next few days I'll have something written on this latest slab of Joe Sacco reportage and how its narrative disposition does and doesn't relate to its more divisive sibling-in-spirit, Emmanuel Guibert's, Didier Lefevre's & Frederic Lemercier's The Photographer (which I enjoyed). For now, rest assured that Sacco's sweeping return to the Israel-Palestine conflict distills the subjective-as-hell stuff of personal narrative, lots of 'em, into some state of the art for the North American (auto)biographical tradition.

3. Driven by Lemons: I first wrote about Skyscrapers of the Midwest artist Joshua Cotter's 'difficult second album' as an excited highlight of my SPX experience here, but then I tried to boil it down here, so maybe that version bears repeating:

Presented as a facsimile sketchbook, Cotter's follow-up to his popular Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the kind of dense, inventive, idea-rich thingamajig that'd knot your belly with intimidated awe if he showed it to you on the side, though the philosophical musings and cartoon iconography within are personal enough that it's more like you broke into his bedroom and pulled it out of a drawer.

The tale of a lil' rabbit's personal journey, more or less (kinda), this is the kind of comic that sees a new visual style pop up on every third or fifth page, yet images recur, anxieties solidify, and even the endpapers have something to add, so worked-over are all these pages with spew of the soul and skull. For funnybook adventurers.

That'll do, pig. That'll do.

2. Asterios Polyp: Wow, have you heard of this one?! I don't know how much more needs to be said regarding the on-page merits of superhero legend-turned-art comics man of mystery David Mazzucchelli's triumphant return to comics, so humor me while I talk about talking about comics, and how Mazzucchelli has forced the question of art. I know I can use practice developing a surer perspective on comics' visual aspect, working at the critical vocabulary and learning to apply it better to comics as a whole. I can think of a few superhero comics that called for a hard, holistic glance, like Wednesday Comics, which was top of the pops as a symbolic corrective to 52 and Countdown, but demonstrated that bland stories can't just be conveyed in a larger, glossier way, or Detective Comics, a thrilling feat of iconographic-metaphoric invention that, for its balance between the art and a very competent but on-the-level plot, wound up never quite breaking out into ecstatics.

In contrast, Asterios Polyp almost immediately kicks 'plot' in the stomach and smashes its face into the curb as hard as it can, and leaves it stewing in blood and loose teeth. Some critics have since declared its story dead on delivery, but my enthusiasm for Mazzucchelli's work comes from how his lines and symbols and typography and colors reanimate the story and absolutely command its movement. From this study of how its art works -- and to study the work, you have to study the art -- you can trace the potential and function of any of its myriad familiar comic book tools. It's all at the front - it's Mazzucchelli the teacher, drawing firm examples. Look close, and benefit. Modernism can be your Santa Claus.

1. GoGo Monster: And here's Taiyo Matsumoto and the best comic of 2009, a tale of two schoolboys in their third year of classes, one of whom spends most of his time fading in and out of a world of invisible spirits facing an even more obscure threat; it was published in Japan in 2000, right before No. 5 began serialization. I've had a review half-written for a little while now -- the book came out pretty recently -- so in lieu of that I'll provide a sub-list of Reasons Why This is Great to compliment my Top Ten Funnies and Best of Show Disclaimers rundown:

(A) It's the most furiously cartooned book I've read all year, a no-assistants one man show of total vision penmanship that leaves its 'realistic' scenery vibrating; buildings literally wave and curve in the background while characters adopt scribbly or sharp appearances based on minute shifts in mood. It's like Matsumoto seized on the propensity of manga characters in stories where boys see spirits to shift to superdeformed mode when something funny happens and exploded it into three-dimensional sphere of hypersensitive bodily flux.

(B) Gone is any trace of the punkish action comics posture of Tekkonkinkreet. Why is that a virtue? Because GoGo Monster functions as a stealthy follow-up project; there's no doubt in my mind as to why Viz selected it to follow that long-brewing success, since it's functionally a loose remake, at one point even replicating a plot twist. The trick is, the work formerly known as Black and White concluded with its heroes extricating themselves from the heroic narrative as a means of growing up. Thus, GoGo Monster rips the explicit fantasy out and presents another two boys in a similar story that's nonetheless entirely different, more delicate, daydreamier. Better.

(C) But you don't need to know that part. GoGo Monster is also a lovely self-contained unit, an original hardcover graphic novel, even in Japan, where such things are pretty rare. Every bit of the format is exploited, with a cardboard slipcase giving way to a wraparound cover that doubles as the work's first page, although the 'first' page is actually page "-8," which leads into page -7 on the inside-front cover, then -6 through -1 on tinted pages, followed by several pages of black to indicate a narrative break of two years, and then full-color titles on page 0, thereafter counting to over 450 in crisp b&w. You bet your ass the solid black inside-back cover is significant - it's another break in time, one we can't see past.

(D) The main action of the book takes place over five chapters: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. This is a cycle, though, not a schematic. If anything, GoGo Monster is reminiscent in tone (not style) of John Porcellino at his sensation-of-moments airiest, with seemingly half the pages in the book devoted specifically to evocation: word balloons floating idle chatter in the air, familiar characters' faces gazing out, words repeating, images repeating, airplanes, rabbits, scribbles on a desk, not so far from the scribbles that are the children.

(E) Dotting this mental-temporal landscape are startling scenes and images, ranging from a multi-page depiction of a boy swimming in front of an adult -- every page-topping wide panel set outside the pool exactly the same while below are jagged, tense variations of working through water with a cramp -- to one of the indelible character designs of 2009(/2000) in the form of the story's semi-antagonist I.Q., an older boy wearing a silly assortment of boxes over his head, always with a single hole cut out to reveal a spectacularly eerie photorealistic cross-hatched eye, always the most detailed bit of anatomy on any given page. Cross-hatching serves as the looming presence of adulthood throughout the book, finally erupting in a classic I-am-a-master-cartoonist-and-I-can-do-ANYTHING-I-WANT visual blowout climax in which all panels become filled with infinitesimally minute cross-hatches and stippling so that the reader is forced to stare deeply into every panel, slowly navigating as if literally in a dark room, just barely making out faces or legs or terrible animal shapes, and it's actually scary.

(F) All of this seems absolutely effortless, from the most worked-over panels to the (far more plentiful) pages of perfect, energetic doodling. I have no problem believing that Matsumoto may not have known what would be two pages ahead of him at any given time, though I doubt that's true, it's too complete a work. The book is best read in one sitting; it's a breeze of a comic, sincerely refreshing. So great is its artist's expressive power that even the book's chilly, ill-fitting English typeface seems outright alien, as if drawing attention to the futility of translation. Aesthetes may still object, and they wouldn't be wrong.

(G) Still, Matsumoto endures. I haven't even gotten into the book's literary qualities, like I.Q.'s reader surrogate role in first observing the action and then questioning the narrative, or how the setting embodies the educational approach at work in the boys' lives, allowing little children to work through their odd issues while placing pressure on older kids to set an example, and establish a hierarchy. Matsumoto isn't out to criticize, however. He seems totally happy as an adult, content to look back to childhood with an adult's command of his art and ask: was it awesome? Yeah.