Friday, December 12, 2014

My Favorite Comics of 2014

Robert Boyd

I feel a little guilty posting this list now because in the next 19 days I am sure to read some more comics that should have been in the top 10 or at least in the honorable mention list. There are still some from Comic Arts Brooklyn that I picked up and haven't yet read, for example. But that said, I've read a whole bunch of comics this year and have some opinions about them and 'tis the season, you know?

Notice that I didn't say "The Best" comics of 2014. I haven't read all the comics the came out this year, so what do I know? For one thing, I've only read comics published in English. So what of the thousands of comics published this year in French, Japanese and other languages? But even if you specify English-language comics only, I've read only a small percentage of the total published. So if you know of a really great comic that's not on my favorites list, it may simply be that I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Or it may be that we just disagree.

Because above all, this list reflects my own idiosyncratic tastes. For example, I've come to really dislike most "mainstream" comic books over the past couple of decades. I find them hard to get into. At a moment when superheroes have finally gained universal popularity, I've grown permanently tired of them. I still have a nostalgic love for the ones I read as a kid (although I find it hard to read them now), and I recognize that there are works within that genre that are exemplary, but I'm not personally interested in searching them out. Once or twice a year I'll make an effort, and I'm always disappointed. So there won't be any costumed heroes on this list.

But more than this, what often happens is that one of my favorite cartoonists produces a new book, and it's excellent as usual, and therefore it ends up on the list. I'd like to think I chose Jaime Hernandez and Dylan Horrocks books because they are inarguably the best, but my relationship with their work goes back so far and is so deep, I can't be sure I'm really being objective. Sam Alden is the only cartoonist on the list whose work I'd never read before this year (although I can't say I was super-familiar with Mimi Pond's work or Christophe Blain's--and Blain's writing partner, Abel Lanza, was a revelation).

With all these caveats and disqualifications, here are my favorite comics from 2014.

1) Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury USA). Long my favorite New Yorker cartoonist, this lengthy work on a serious subject is miraculously both moving and hilarious. She can't stop being Roz Chast even while talking about the slow decline and death of both of her parents. And it had personal resonance with me because it deals with issues that I and my siblings are having to deal with with our own elderly parent.

Chast's parents were significantly older than her. She first became aware of problems when they were 90--she visits their apartment in Brooklyn and notices it is covered with grime--something her mother had never previously tolerated. She tells these stories in episodes often presented as full page comics--very similar to her strips in the New Yorker. These episodes are linked by hand-written illustrated text pieces which keeps the thread together. Her odd parents at first seem quite vital for two people in their 90s, but a fall puts Chast's mother in the hospital and makes Chast realize how senile her father has become. It becomes obvious that these are two people who should not be living alone in an apartment. But it took a year after her mother's fall for them to seriously consider moving into an assisted living situation.

Chast has always been a cartoonist whose drawing was crude (but funny). But this book demonstrates that she has great chops and deploys them only when they will have maximum effect. Her full page drawing of her father when her mother returned home from the hospital is classic--a funny, loving portrait. She also includes photos of the crap she cleaned out of their apartments when they finally moved out.

She deals with the irritations, the guilt, the sadness and all the other emotions of seeing a parent decline and die. The book is moving, very funny, and instructive, and I appreciate it as a representative of a new genre in comics (for example Special Exits by Joyce Farmer and The Song of Roland by Michel Rabagliati). It heartens me to think that comics are now mature enough to deal with this subject. Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is an unexpected masterwork.

2) Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (Fantagraphics Books). I saw this unfold more of less in real time as Dylan Horrocks drew it--he posted the first page online on February 23, 2009. Now it's finished and you can read the entire story in book form. Horrocks tells us a fantasy story about the joys, dangers and responsibilities of fantasy stories. It's quite post-modern in that regard and may remind you a little of Italo Calvino or Vladimir Nabokov, but Horrocks always wants you to remember that you are reading a comic book about comic books. It's funny and sexy and there's self-doubt and sadness in it, too. It's this richness that's kept me interested as it unfolded glacially before my eyes over the course of five years. The wait was worth it.

The basic premise is that there exists a magic pen that if you draw a picture (or better yet, a comics story) with it, you can then blow on the picture and be transported into the world you've drawn. Not only that, any reproductions of that image or comic will have the same property. That's how Sam Zabel, a cartoonist writing a terrible mainstream superhero comic for which he feels zero passion, is transported into another world--specifically, a rather silly and sexist but somewhat delightful version of Mars from a kid's comic published by a New Zealand cartoonist in the 1950s. He meets a young woman, Miki, who carries a backpack full of comics and drawings created with the magic pen, which allows for a variety of explorations.

In some ways, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is playful and light-hearted, but the book is always asking this question: what is the responsibility of the fantasist? "Responsibility" and "fantasy" are not two words that go together very often, except when various scolds tell us that fantasy itself is irresponsible. But this book really wants us to consider them as partners in a way--it tells us that our fantasies are where we go wild and break out of our mental and emotional binds (there is even a chapter called "Anhedonia"), but that we must always remember that fantasies have consequences. It's a beautiful, thought-provoking comic.

3) Here by Richard McGuire (Pantheon Books). This is the most formally daring of all the comics I've listed. Each page is a double spread, facing into the corner of a nondescript room, with a window on the left and a fireplace on the right. In the upper left-hand corner of each page is a year, like 2014 or 1956 or 1775 or even 3,000,500,000 BCE. And what you see in the spread is what you would be seeing at some point in that year. So we see the house being built in 1907, and we see the large house across the street being built in 1764. We see the forest before then inhabited by Native Americans who come into contact with Dutch settlers, and we see prehistoric landscapes. And we see a future, which at first seem fairly hightech. One image from 2213 shows a tour guide using a device that allows the tourists to see what we're seeing in Here--the house that stood on that spot throughout the years. But we also see a very distant future that seems devoid of humanity. We even have a guest appearance by Benjamin Franklin, who visits the colonial house which is, apparently, where his son lives. And all these different views are shown in non-chronological order.

Within each double-page spread are inset panels. They are from different times as well, and we see small episodes and events unfold, mostly from the 20th century, but quite a few from the 18th century and several from before. These floating panels are distinguished from the larger spreads and from each other by color. McGuire's color scheme helps us keep the different elements distinct.

This is an expansion of a six page story Richard McGuire published in RAW in 1989. That story is legendary--an acknowledged classic. But by expanding it as he has done here, McGuire has created something quite different (although no less formally audacious). I heard him speak earlier this year, and he was at pains to say this wasn't about his family or his childhood home, except that it really was. The family shown in the late 50s and 60s is his family. He really did grow up in an old house across the street from William Franklin's house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. But while the personal stories here are important, the book is unmoored from them. There is no linearity here unless one carefully follows the dates in the corners of the pages and panels. And, in fact, the book invites you to do this. Reading it through once is like looking at a kaleidoscope, but as you read, you mentally file away episodes you want to return to, like the fight between two men in straw boaters in 1910 or or the romantic Native American couple in 1609. I've just "read" this book, but I suspect I won't really be "finished" with it for quite a while.

4) The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books). This collects several related stories from Love & Rockets. Jaime Hernandez has been drawing stories about Maggie Chascarillo since the early 80s, and he's allowed her to age over that time. But one thing he's done a little bit recently is to deepen her personal history--characters we never knew existed are slotted into her childhood or young adulthood and make appearances in her adult life. In this volume, he introduces Calvin, Maggie's brother. His childhood story is told in the searing "Browntown", surely the most disturbing story in Hernandez ever wrote. The damage done to Calvin as a boy affects him (and Maggie and her lover Ray) as middle-aged adults. As Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In addition to "Browntown," there is "Return For Me," set shortly after the period in "Browntown," and told from the point of view of Maggie's friend, Letty Chavez. It's a startling story, because it's told in past tense as if Letty is telling it to us up until the instant that Letty is killed in a car accident. Her story ends mid-sentence.

But the main thrust of the story is how Maggie and Ray, whose relationship has come and gone over the years, finally end up an old couple together. Getting there is a quite a twisty journey, and Hernandez tells it rather obliquely. For someone who has written a generational epic, Hernandez has evolved into a minimalist. I wonder what he's going to do next, because this book feel very much like an ending to Maggie's story. It's a beautiful ending, too, especially for those of us who have been following this story since the beginning.

5) Over Easy by Mimi Pond (Drawn & Quarterly). This is another one that took years to come out--I heard about it from Pond herself in 2009. She posted a few pages on line, and then nothing until this year. This is a brick of a graphic memoir, unusual in that it discusses the ins and outs of work, a subject criminally ignored by most cartoonists. Jobs, employment, co-workers, the boss, the grind--Over Easy has it all, and it's all funny and affecting. My review is here.

6) The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly). Starting in 1997, John Porcellino started feeling sick. This book is a memoir of illness, both mental and physical. First it's stomach pain, which he is reluctant to treat because of the cost. He only goes when his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn't. He is diagnosed with Crohn's disease, but treatment doesn't seem to help. Porcellino depicts the emotional aspects of sickness very movingly. His pacing is perfect. In one panel, he is on his knees searching. The caption reads, "My wedding ring had slipped off my now-bony finger...." This is followed by a "silent" panel, and then one that reads, "and I cried and cried." In this case, it turns out they had misdiagnosed him, and they were able to fix that, but his problems were just beginning.

His illnesses eventually contribute to the end of his first marriage. He wishes he could "be a normal person" and ponders suicide. His struggles with allergies may remind readers of the movie Safe. And most of all, Porcellino's depiction of OCD is the best depiction of that insidious disease I've seen. "One half of your brain is making you do this nutty stuff... The other half is telling you how ridiculous you are for doing it..." From the beginning of the book, Porcellino depicts himself as a spiritual seeker, particularly interested in Buddhism. But the disease turns even that against him as he comes to believe that God is punishing him for some reason. At one point he borrows a copy of the old Japanese monster movie Destroy All Monsters from the library. But his OCD-afflicted animal brain concludes that if he watches, monsters could come and destroy his town. His rational mind knows this is insane, but still he can't bring himself to watch it.

Porcellino's drawing is minimal and functional, and that has always served his poetic, haiku-like stories. But the stories here are not poetic. They are about about how disease destroys the poetry in his life. Porcellino went through hell, and he is humiliated by the experiences. Sickness is not just pain (although there is plenty here); it is one indignity after another. Porcellino's magic is that he succeeds in making the reader empathize, even when his character can't seem to forgive himself.

7) Sugar Skull by Charles Burns (Pantheon). The concluding book of a trilogy, it wraps up the mysterious beginning and middle with a gut-punch of an ending. Burns is an artist who was closely associated with the legendary RAW and is best known for his graphic novel Black Hole. I reviewed Sugar Skull here.

8)  Weapons of Mass Diplomacy by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain (SelfMadeHero). Weapons of Mass Diplomacy was reviewed here in August. It's surprising that a roman à clef about French diplomacy could simultaneously be so funny and so moving.

9) Incomplete Works by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press). Yes, Horrocks gets two entries in the top 10. I wrote about Incomplete Works earlier. The funny thing is that I knew Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen was coming this year--it had been announced and was being discussed, and of course readers of the online serialization could see that it was heading towards a climax. But Incomplete Works was a total surprise to me when Horrocks announced it on his own website. They are both deserving of their places on this list--one an overview of his art from its earliest days, the other a fully mature masterpiece.

10) It Never Happened Again: Two Stories by Sam Alden (Uncivilized Books). I reviewed this book earlier this year. It's been a great year for this artist, about whom I know very little except that he is in his mid-20s and seems to be quite peripatetic. In fact, before this year I had never heard of him. But he's someone whose work I'll be keeping an eye on from now on.

Honorable Mention 
  • Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part Two: 1953-1984 by Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. (SelfMadeHero). Not quite as good as the first volume, but still good. These books feature rather didactic texts, but the text is enlivened by the fertile visual imagination of David B, one of the greatest cartoonists alive.
  • Buddy Buys A Dump by Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics). Reviewed here. 
  • My Neighbour's Bikini by Jimmy Beaulieu (Conundrum Press). It starts off as a "meet cute" romantic comedy, but My Neighbor's Bikini is actually quite sexy. It has a down-to-earth eroticism that is emphasized by Beaulieu's beautiful pencil drawing.
  • Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books). Review here.
  • Mutiny Bay by Antoine Cossé (Breakdown Press). A find from Comic Arts Brooklyn, this book takes an incident of mutiny from the voyage of Magellan and fleshes it out in a detailed, almost hallucinatory way.
  • How To Be Happy by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics Books). Beautifully drawn, these stories range from dramatic to humorous, but all told from the point of view of the modern person who is into yoga, worried about wheat allergies, etc. I'm not even sure what to call this vast subculture--but I like the way Davis circles around and through it, dealing with its absurdities and beauties.
  • Angie Bongiolatti by Mike Dawson (Secret Acres). An intriguing story that combines left wing street politics with frustrated romance in an unexpected way. Discussion of Dawson and this book lead to one of the most popular posts this year.
  • Minimum Wage Volume 1: Focus on the Strange by Bob Fingerman (Image Comics). The first version of Minimum Wage (collected as Beg the Question) found Fingerman loosening up from his earlier art style and getting into a funny roman à clef. (I was even drawn into the background of one scene!) But this new Minimum Wage series is so much better--his drawing amazingly continues to improve with age and the dialogue feels less written and more lived.
  • Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books). By all accounts, Simon Hanselmann is a workaholic. Funny then that his primary subject is the lives of a household of lazy stoners. The work captures the repetitiveness of the stoner life perfectly, and is hilarious.
  • World War 3 Illustrated: 1979–-2014 edited by Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman, featuring work by Kuper, Tobocman, Eric Drooker, Sabrina Jones, Sue Coe, Chuck Sperry and many more (PM Press). A really beautifully produced "best of" collection of the venerable left-wing political comic that has been published continuously since 1980.
  • Facility Integrity and The Libertarian by Nick Maandag (Pigeon Press). Nasty, funny comic books that each take a slightly ridiculous premise and carries it to an absurd end--in one, a corporation prohibits its employees from shitting on company time, and in the other a libertarian falls in love with a "vegan-socialist feminist." Hilarity ensues.
  • Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan (Showa: A History of Japan) by Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly). Mizuki's history is eccentric and depends heavily on photo references, but the parallel stories of his own life as a young soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army are amazing.
  • Forming II by Jesse Moynihan (Nobrow Press). This volume was not quite as engaging as volume 1 because the story (by necessity) slowed down a bit. Volume 1 spent a lot of time putting the chess pieces in place. Forming II is showing us how the game is playing out.
  • Rough House 2 with work by Nicolas Mahler, Kayla E, James Roo, Mack White, Brendan Kiefer, Doug Pollard, Gillian Rhodes, Russell Etchen and many others (Raw Paw). The second squarebound issue of this Austin-based anthology shows both increased ambition and growth by individual artists. Really enjoyable, and I hope it continues.
  • Beautiful Darkness by Fabian Vehlman and Kerascoët (Drawn & Quarterly). A very strange story set amongst the fairies and insects of a forest, in a surprisingly violent fantasy world. Beautifully drawn but disturbing.
  • Jim by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books). Collecting all the comics and 'zines that were published under the moniker "Jim" (and a few odds and ends from elsewhere), this is some of Woodring's finest, most oneiric work.
  • RAV 1st Collection by Mickey Zacchilli (Youth in Declne). Scratchy, urgent graphics combined with an absurd, funny, pulpy story.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Robert, for bringing these to our attention. Though I will likely never have time to escape my "pre-history" research. This has been a fine read.