Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Comics of 2009

I was going to do the top 10 comics of 2009, but I just couldn't limit myself to 10. So here are my top 15. Some big caveats going in. First, there are comics that came out this year that look really good that I haven't read yet. (For example, the new Joe Sacco book.) There are also probably comics that came out this year that are really good that I just don't know about. And finally, this list is personal and idiosyncratic. It is the list of a guy who values art comics and alternative comics far more than mainstream comics. My tastes were formed in the 80s and 90s, and I think that shows. I am someone who loves the comic strip form, especially as practiced before World War II. Also, I have found over the past few years that I haven't been reading many comic books. So the only comic book on this list is Multiforce (and calling it a comic book is kind of a stretch).So with that in mind, here we go!

The Top 15

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1) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. See my review here. A beautiful, rigorously structured, funny and moving book.

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2) You Are There by Jean-Claude Forest and Jacques Tardi. See my review here. This is, like so many things on my list, actually quite an old work. But this edition is the first published in English.

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3) Jack Survives by Jack Moriarity. This powerful body of work was mostly published in RAW in the 80s. Moriarty approaches these comics as a life-long painter, and this edition reproduces them as paintings, not as high-contrast line drawings, which is how they were originally printed. The result is mesmerizing without detracting from the stories. The stories are kind of abstractions of early 50s manhood. A guy in a hat with his family and his house... Brilliant pieces of minimalism created with a neo-expressionist painter's brush.

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4) The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb. Awe-inspiring. In a way, Crumb has been too faithful. Using a very literal translation of the Bible by Robert Alter as his starting point, he tries to keep interpretation to a minimum. One result is that the comic form is compromised in at least one obvious way. The Bible will have passages that read, "He said, Blah blah blah" In the Bible, there are no freestanding quotations of spoken words. So in a panel where Crumb is depicting someone speakings, there is always a little caption preceeding the word balloon that says something like, "And then Jacob said" This is really weird. What these captions are saying is being shown through the use of the visual device of the word balloon. This was just one of the awkward things that comes from including every word of a prose work in a different medium (comics). Of course, his artistry makes up for a lot of awkwardness. You can stare at this book forever. One aspect of Genesis that is really boring is the listing of names--the "begats." But Crumb, drawing all these hundreds of faces, turns that weakness of the text into an overwhelming strength--each face, so individual, implies a story, a life. It's a beautiful piece of work.

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5) George Sprott (1894-1975) by Seth. This ran in the New York Times Magazine, and for this book, Seth has added some incidental art (spectacular, of course--it includes cardboard models of the buildings from the story) and two short recollections of Sprott's boyhood and youth. Seth uses a technique that I think really works better for him than telling a story as a straight narrative. Each page is its own little episode--set in its own time, focusing on a particular person. The sum of these episodes is George Sprott's awful life--an asshole whose career is an extended riff on one minor achievement of his young manhood. It is amazing how compelling this nasty character is!

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6) The Complete Little Orphan Annie, vol. 3 by Harold Gray. See my review here. An unusually powerful melodrama from the depths of the Depression.

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7) Popeye, vol. 4 by E.C. Segar. This is the volume with the great "Plunder Island" sequence, which introduced many of us to the genius of Segar when it was reproduced in the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics. But the whole of this book is top-notch, Segar at his greatest. Includes a lengthy and hilarious sequence of Popeye in drag, romancing a baddie.

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8) Journey, vol 2 by William Messner-Loebs. An underappreciated classic from the 80s, published in the first great flush of "independent comics" that brought us classics like Love & Rockets and Yummy Fur. MacAlistaire and the failed poet Elmer Alyn Craft (who was introduced in the first volume) are stranded in the barely there settlement of New Hope for a winter. This village is claustrophobic and full of horrible secrets. Craft is obsessed with finding them--MacAlistaire is interested only insofar as it will help him survive the winter. Messner-Loebs' drawing has lost what little polish it exhibited in the first volume. It becomes ragged and urgent here, fitting the psychologically intense and unsettling story.

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9) Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, vol. 8. This is a particularly rich volume. Gould made a decision to not send Dick Tracy to war, but the war pops up. Pruneface is an enemy agent that Tracy must shut down. His most terrifying villain in this volume, however, is Mrs. Pruneface, a hulking skullfaced woman seeking revenge for her man's death. And of Tracy's iconic villains, Flattop rounds out this volume (and we meet Vitamin Flintheart, who will be a recurring character). The art is, as always, excellent.

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10) Multiforce by Mat Brinkman. I've read a lot of these strips here and there, and only now realize that they all sort of fit together.This oversized, saddle-stitched book brings the whole saga together. And "saga" is the right word. Multiforce is simultaneously the kind of epic a ten-year-old boy would conceive of and at the same time the kind of art that a sophisticated product of elite art education might create. The work slithers between these two poles trickily. And Brinkman never fails to be amusing. This may remind some people of Trondheim and Sfarr's Dungeon books, which are clever and funny, but frankly feel contrived next to Multiforce. Great, weird art and storytelling.

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11) Cecil and Jordon in New York by Gabrielle Bell. Very good--Bell's art is outstanding in a non-showy, matter-of-fact way. In some stories, she never shows you someone's face in a close-up, and in some of her autobiographical stories, almost ever figure is drawn full-figure--in other words you see their feet and heads in every panel they are in. The distance from the observer and the characters is pretty large. It's a weird way to tell an autobiographical story--its as if the author was pretending not to know what was going through the mind of the character. It creates an interesting contradiction, as if Bell were alienated from her earlier self. That feeling carries through in her fiction stories too. The characters seem to feel disconnected from their lives, even as they have what (on the surface) seem like pretty engaging experiences. Her characters never get happy, which can be kind of a downer. The title story even features a character who would be happier as a chair--she'd feel useful that way, and not have to struggle the way she did when she was a full-time girl.

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12) Everyone Is Stupid Except Me by Peter Bagge. This collection has been a long time coming. Peter Bagge has been doing these reportorial strips for Reason for years, and before that he did similar strips for the late, lamented web magazine Suck. His reporting is infused with his own style of humor, which will resonate with fans of Hate (like me). But what is different is that he is actually reporting here--going out, covering events, talking to participants, doing research, etc. Satirical reporting may have been around forever, but in modern times, Spy was the first big practitioner of it. Spy spawned a host of mostly online followers--Suck, of course, and nowadays websites like Gawker and Wonkette. But those sites are mostly picking up news and adding their own snarky spin. Like the writers for Spy, Bagge is going out and doing the digging himself, and like the great magazine reporters of the '60s and '70s, he puts himself in the stories. Most of this work is in service of Bagge's (and Reason's) libertarian beliefs. Don't expect him to be "fair"--he has a point of view and he is going to hammer it home. But he is a humorist first, so he is constantly mocking his own side (if they are mockable) as well as the protagonists of his stories. But if you are not a libertarian, you'll find yourself muttering "That's outrageous!" at many of Bagge's broader caricatures of liberals or conservatives. Get past that! These strips are very, very funny, and if they force you to work harder to defend your point of view against Bagge's arguments, is that bad?

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13) You’ll Never Know book 1: A Good and Decent Man by Carol Tyler. Great but somewhat confused biography/memoir. Carol Tyler is attempting to tell the story of her dad in World War II. She is faced with a problem, though. Tyler's dad doesn't want to talk about a certain part of it--his time in Italy. We are given hint that he saw a literal "river of blood," and the trauma has kept him silent for decades. Even his wife doesn't know. Tyler herself is going through her own stuff--an absent husband, a beautiful teenage daughter, life. Tyler is better at short pieces, where she can focus. This is a glorious mess, but a moving and beautiful one. The format is unusual too. Tyler uses the horizontal format of a scrapbook. Also, for some reason, the whole thing is not being told in one volume. I suppose I will wait long frustrating months (and years?) for the next volume.

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14) Map of My Heart by John Porcellino. I think this could have been better edited. As it is, they just reprinted whole issues of King Kat, including letters to Porcellino. This approach, however, feels consistent with the basic vibe of King Cat. The stories are slight, filled with simple joy or being alive or with small regrets. In between the stories, there are journal entries and annotations where Porcellino tells us about the arc of his marriage, his sense of failure at getting divorced, his mysterious chronic illness. etc. These are almost never the subjects of his comics. At least not directly. His work is oblique that way, but never obscure. On the contrary, emotion is right on the surface. Lots of very moving stories here.

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15) Nine Ways to Disappear by Lilly Carre. This is a collection of witty little stories. Some have the flavor of modern fairy tales ("The Pearl"), and all of them have an other-worldly quality. She uses a primitive panel progression--one panel per page, like the old woodcut guys (Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel). To emphasize the separateness of each panel, each one has a decorative border (recalling Lynda Barry, perhaps). But the stories flow perfectly well, and doing it this way made me linger a bit over each panel. Which is nice, because they are lovely. My favorite story is "Wide Eyes", the story of a man who falls in love with a woman with widely-spaced eyes, but feeling oppressed by them, finds he can hide from her by standing very close to her face, between her eyes and apparently outside her field of vision. My favorite character is the only recurring one, a lonely storm grate.

(A little side note--of the top 15 books, four were published by Fantagraphics, three by Drawn & Quarterly, three by IDW, and one each by Norton, Buenaventura Press, Pantheon, Little Otsu, and Picturebox.)

Honorable mention
Here are some other 2009 comics I liked.
The Best American Comics 2009 edited by Charles Burns
The Cartoon History of the Modern World vol. 2 by Larry Gonick
The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, vol. 7
The Complete Little Orphan Annie, vol. 2 by Harold Gray
A Drifiting Life by Yoshiharu Tatsumi
Ho! by Ivan Brunetti
Humbug by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, Will Elder, etc.
Key Moments from the History of Comics by Fran├žois Ayroles
Low Moon by Jason
Masterpiece Comics by R. Sikoryak
A Mess of Everything by Miss Lasko-Gross
The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack by Nicholas Gurewitch
Pim & Francie by Al Columbia
Stitches by David Small
Terry and the Pirates, vol.6 by Milton Caniff
West Coast Blues by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jacques Tardi

Art Books
I also want to acknowledge a few great books that came out in 2009 that are more "art books" than comics, but which contain comics and/or have a strong relationship to comics. All of these books are really beautiful and quite worth investing in a big new coffee table on which to display them.

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics
The Art of Tony Millionaire
Hot Potatoe by Marc Bell
Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve

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