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.