Besties, if you’ve been living in a MAGA echo chamber, are my breathlessly anticipated yearly list of best comics. Or, as Marvel called their comics for a brief moment during the Stan Lee fever dream of superhero magic that jump started the Marvel Cinematic Universe many decades ago when bell bottoms were wide, and colors 4-, and garish: “Pop Art Productions”.
The Marvel Bullpen bombast of the previous graph being highly apropos. For me, it was a year when there was allowance money to spend, and time to fill with the end of my part time job, and the relentless persistence of covid. So the early Marvels are a recurring theme. Specifically, the Marvels predating my youthful discovery of Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Romita’s Spider-Man, when I was still quite beguiled by Barks’ Donald Duck and Stanley’s Little Lulu. A testament to my superior taste in four color graphic fiction even then ( we won’t mention the reams of Harvey and Archie dreck I ingested then, or the forgettable Classics Comics my parents brought home for us in the probably unnecessary project of steering us toward ‘real’ books).
Filling in the gaps of comics history was overall, a sort of a theme this year, whether it be the constrained glories of Silver Age mainstream DCs and Marvels newly enshrined by Penguin Classics, the newly published innovations of Garo magazine mangas, or the burgeoning critical literature surrounding comics new and old. I did read several newer creations as well, but as the year ended, I was immersed retrospectively in Europe’s “Clear Line” revival of the 80’s.
All our lives, we’ve been steered away from an entire unique medium ( not a ‘genre’, unless you want to sound like a moron ) by well-intentioned parents or self-appointed moral guardians. What were they afraid of? As if the presence of Benday dots, newsprint, and hack writers imposed by rapacious publishers was proof that the ancient and elemental creative combo of words and pictures were harmful to curious readers. Even when the DCs and Marvels started to leave me wanting more, I somehow found the more ambitious Euros and DIY indies that could satisfy my fascination with comics. And this year, apparently, I needed to know why.
As always, there are two loose categories: newly created, or sometimes, newly discovered productions ( The Besties); and older collections, reprints and critical surveys (The Resties). For ease of reading, I’ve separated the two into two separate posts.
Alone In Space, Tillie Walden: A newly published collection of early work, new to me. Contains End Of Summer, exquisite long story/novella that anticipates her sublime On A Sunbeam, and is beautiful in its own right.
These are subtle hybrids; existential teen dramas and grand space operas where the emotional distances and drifting allegiances of adolescence are stretched across the void. Her ink work is architectural, using empty space, rather than obsessive detail to focus us on important moments in time. This does not mean, however, that there is not richly rendered illustration, often, of architecture.
I wonder how many adults miss her exquisite books because they are routinely shelved in the Young Adult section? Not that the MAGA thugs haven’t worked diligently to keep her in the public eye (Oh no! Lesbians!) Oh- to be a teen again and come across these magical things in the library.
Are You Even Listening? Walden: Down to Earth coming-of-age road story with magical realist elements that perhaps suffers in comparison to her others, but is certainly strong. Included here because it demonstrates the broad range of this important young creator.
Crickets #7, 8, Sammy Harkham: Conclusion to the epic Blood of the Virgin tale of ‘C’ grade movie making in 70’s LA. Without going back and rereading the whole arc in one go yet, I’m not sure I place it higher than his fabulist Poor Sailor arc, but it’s unique and rich in characterization.
Saga V. 10, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Back from a 3-year hiatus and following a dramatic conclusion to V. 9, it was hotly anticipated and possibly that’s a set-up for some transitional hiccups. It’s clear that the narrative driver is shifting from Alanna to her hunted, interracial ( interspecies?) child Hazel, which might occasion some writerly uncertainty or slowing. New elements (Rock and Roll!) are introduced, but some of the complications we’ve visited before (drugs). And episodic comics, with their almost obligatory end-of-chapter reveal, are hard to sustain ( So no, not sex).
But it only begs the question of the emotional impact of V.9’s concluding death (no spoilers) which is glossed over with the story skipping ahead a couple of years. And this detracts a bit from the story’s real treasure: how love trumps war.
Yeah, Saga‘s never gonna not be on the Besties. Staples’ art is still eye-popping and twists and turns are everywhere. With 8 chapters to go, there’s time to regain the propulsive energy of the earlier segments, at least until they start billing it as ‘Pop Art’.
Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge: In casting about, in the late 70’s and early 80’s for a truly artistic use of this amazing medium after an adolescence of superhero fantasy, I first discovered the title story of this newly published collection of pioneering 60’s manga as a pull out supplement to an early issue of Raw Magazine. It stuck with me, but not enough to include the vast amounts of dystopian Sci-Fi mangas of the 80’s in my limited budget. This is far more down to Earth.
It took the discovery of Garo Magazine’s innovative mangaka of the 60’s, untranslated into English until very recently, to get me hooked. Hayashi, Sugiera, Matsumoto and now finally Tsuge’s pioneering alt comics, influenced by Pop Art, Poetry, French New Wave films and Japanese folklore are now being translated and seeing the light. These quiet, delicate semi autobiographical shorts of sometimes humorous, sometimes troubled characters in the Japanese countryside are lent context by the estimable Ryan Holmberg, scholar of Japanese pop culture.
And the Bestiest:
The Bloody Streets of Paris, Jacques Tardi: I did not see this one coming. I ran across it in the cluttered warrens of Westside books, where one is required to dig for one’s treasures. A 1996 adaptation of a Leo Malet noir, with a twist: it takes place in Vichy France.
I’d read Tardi before, part of the Clear Line revivalists I’d also encountered with other Euro cartoonists in the 80’s Heavy Metal mag ( also, Raw). And Fantagraphics translated another Malet adaptation of his, Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, mid-decade (also worth a read, though seemingly set later, in the 50s). Tardi, with his dense, fluid, eccentric take on Clear Line, the French/Belgian/Dutch revival of Herge’s Tintin style, brought to Malet’s mysteries a real feel for hard boiled genre fiction. He seems to have adapted several, but whether they’ve all been translated is unclear to me.
I haven’t read Malet. He has apparently been translated, but they are hard to find, and very pricy when available ( $289 for a mass market PB!), according to a quick Google search. My noir murder thriller phase passed long ago. I can’t judge his novel from this adaptation, but I can point out that this story is really kind of a set piece, with its grasping, small time bureaucrats and quotidian Vichy corruptions ( oh, and cigarettes! Has anyone written a history of cigarettes in literature?) Like most genre, chance can be relied on to supply narrative motion when logic becomes lazy, and coincidences abound. Almost everyone who appears plays a role in the mystery, and a wildly improbable gathering of all of them in one room feels inevitable. And funny.
This book is rich with obsession and characters who are drunk with it, and its Vichy setting and complex schemes along with its Bogart-like protagonist, Nestor Burma, put it squarely in league with classics such as Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, though it inhabits its own world without a hint of pandering or poseur-ing. The climactic scene, though, is as cliche as any in the noir tradition can be, and is hilarious for that, relieving the heaviness of what Tardi makes the book’s central metaphor: black ink as blood. A metaphor, I might add, that can only be executed in comics.
One follows Nestor Burma around the city streets under grey skies as he follows the black trails of wet pavement beneath a thin dusting of snow. The whites are parsed out like the skimpy nuggets of facts Burma allows us, and the police: pale faces, dustings of morning snow (never pretty, Christmas Eve-style mounds, always thin and contingent with the blacks bleeding through), and in every panel, between sardonic lips and grasping fingers, the cigarettes.
And that brings up the reasons for adapting a tale like this to comics, and what is gained. How Malet might’ve traced those black trails in the Paris streets, or did he at all? The fleshy, corrupt faces, the effervescing matches, the dwindling butt ends. Tardi aspires to the visual alchemy of Huston’s Maltese Falcon, which Crowther of the New York Times called “a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos”. He has blended the agreeable clear line of Herge’s Tintin, the rich spot blacks of Terry and the Pirates‘ Milton Caniff, and the patient eye of Huston, including a 7-minute single take while Bogie, slowly losing consciousness, talks with Greenstreet, into an intoxicating, spiked drink. This was Huston’s first film. Coincidentally, his last, The Dead, similarly lingers on snow to express the fragility of emotional connection. Tardi is in very good company with his inks and paper.
Film is a visual time art, with Huston it’s poetry in motion, with the director in complete control. Comics are also a time art, also visual, but it is we the reader who control the motion and the poetry. Tardi knows this- his Paris street scenes could be picturesque documentary sketches of a city during a bleak winter of occupation, but the black inky trails invite us to be mindful of the corruption and violence that bleeds through human nature like ink through tissue. The process, the slow graceful creep and melt, the blotchy palimpsest of the Paris street- Tardi understands the interaction of white with black, and in this way, he has made something as poetic as Huston, as it is entirely of its genre, not dependent of any source except our fears and imaginings.
Genre is a word that critics often (and ignorantly) apply as an insult to comics (spoiler: it’s a medium, not a genre). But like many artists from Huston on, Tardi sees genre -and ink on blank paper- as liberating and revealing, rather than confining.
The translators made a clumsy choice of a title, seizing on Tardi’s metaphor as a cover for the grisly crime of disposing of Leo Malet’s original one, 120 Rue de la Gare, an homage to Poe, who is invoked several times in the story. If every positive review must contain a negative, there it is. Everything else is pitch-perfect. The only times the story drags is when the reader deliberately slows to take in the Paris and Lyons street scenes and interiors.
Tardi makes Malet’s Nestor Burma his own, and demonstrates the power of the comics medium as an interpreter of literary art.
Next week: The Resties.
#comics #bestof2022 #booklists #bestcomics