I had a lot more time than usual to read this year, and I took it, sometimes ignoring my TV for days into weeks. I read quite a bit of prose this year ( finally finishing The Sot-Weed Factor), but there are reams and megapixels devoted to that, and so I return to my niche, the lowly comic, and yet niche-ier, literary and art comics, sometimes called alternative comics. I probably could’ve put down the reading of them to begin the writing of them a bit earlier, but here they are, just in time for the Oscars.
Alt comics have, since the 90s, made the journey out of the “direct market” comic book stores into bookstores and public libraries, so some will be familiar to prose readers. Others were searched and scoured for, from obscure web sites or persistent Ebay searches. Most, but not all, of the newer ones can be found at Tattered Cover, but the older or more experimental ones are often out of print, and pricey, because of their low print runs.
I do read mainstream Marvels and DCs, though it’s rare. I quit them, for the most part, in the early 70s, when I discovered Art Spiegelman’s (Maus) Raw magazine. I keep tabs on them for the sporadic bursts of creativity they include, and I’m glad I do. Some of the best get mentioned here, and one, Pretty Deadly, has won top Bestieness before. The rise of creator-owned works and royalty participation has shaken the trees for excellent ideas. Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda continues to be a standout.
Lately, I’ve been monitoring editor’s choices, including my own, for representative diversity, and there is some here, though choices remain few on the shelves, especially in such a limited sample. I don’t think publishers are the problem, after all, many publishers and editors are women now. But the social environment on which a lot of geek culture depends ( for creators, bloggers, etc ) was not that friendly to women for a long time, even into the teens (see below). So choosing comics as a career has only recently become a thing for women.
There is one woman, one POC, and a gender queer artist, are on the top list, with another four women, and four foreign creators if you count the Resties, which is my Honorable Mention category. Another woman was in the stack, waiting to be read, but goes into next year’s list, probably near the top. This does not include the anthology on the list, a 2004 publication where the breakdown is also sparse, about 20 male, to 5 female.
There are thrillers, satire, horror, a Victorian social realist novel adaptation, and gross-out humor, all of them uniquely suited to their medium, a bastard child of cave-wall storytelling, European satire, and American commercial chutzpah. The top choices happened to be the most original and innovative, A French all ages objet d’art that would have made Gutenberg proud, a Japanese spectacle of ideographic motion and onomatopoeia, and a self published L.A. based anthology of zine and mini comics rebels.
Born of the same creative/destructive impulse as graffiti, as Adam Gopnik points out in MOMA’s High and Low catalog ( 1990), most comics here can trace their roots to Rudolph Topfer’s Obadiah Oldbuck from the 1850s, Thomas Nast’s Yellow Kid, for whom “Yellow Journalism” was named, or Harvey Kurtzman’s revolutionary Mad Magazine. All of these predated Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s invention of current pop culture juggernaut Marvel Comics, and were equally influential. All pioneered new ways of storytelling.
Crisis Zone, Simon Hanselman, 2021: At number 5 is this over the top look at how a circle of slacker friends, many of them gender queer or otherwise marginalized, deal with the utter strangeness of the first year of COVID. Three roommates- a witch, her cat boyfriend, and an owl, find themselves forming a quarantine pod with other friends, a werewolf, a vampire, et al. A moneymaking scheme involving doing butt stuff on web cam evolves and is taken to hilarious, cringemaking extremes.
I can’t imagine anyone wanting to binge read Hanselman’s gross out humor, but when you’re in the mood, his sense for social satire is relentless. I assume the only reason this hasn’t been adapted for animation is all of the drugs and you know, butt stuff.
Olympia, Jerome Mulot, Florent Ruppert, 2022: Following up from their first heist thriller The Grand Odalisque, about three female art thieves, here the women attempt to steal Manet’s Olympia. Again the action is heart pounding, and the art gestural and suggestive enough to not bog you down. There is a unique twist to make you wonder if the women will survive, and as in all great caper stories, you cannot help rooting for them against great odds, which include their own womanhood, every step of the way.
The Magicians, Blexbolex, 2023: Blexbolex has been bouncing back and forth between comics and children’s books for years, and now has seemingly decided that there is no point discriminating between the two. This is an art object, printed on uncut leaves of paper to enhance its layered colors and silkscreened delicacy of composition. The story refers to the magic of storytelling as much as to its characters actions. This has become bit of a theme of this year’s Besties.
Detention #2, Tim Hensley, 2023: Henseley is a genius for conflating Golden Age comics stylings with pop culture pastiche, having done Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood career as a Tubby and Little Lulu comic previously. Here he goes after 50’s Classics Illustrated, adapting Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane. While I can’t compare it to the original Crane, the telling of the story is rich, with characters and styles from across comics history engaged to be the actors, including The Yellow Kid, Reggie from Archie Comics, a Manga cutie, Mad’s Don Martin, etc. A cultural stew is created, reminiscent Sugiura’s 70’s manga adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, in which American cultural appropriation of indigenous culture is ironically grafted onto ‘nansensu’ manga for children in occupation-era Japan. Hensley is saying something about comics’ limitless ability to tell a story here, with a phantasmagoria of debased cartoon images being deployed to tell a social realist tale of socially debased youth. And the appeal, as well as the message here is that we should be mindful of stereotyping comics as simply illustrated prose fiction.
In reading comics, we are often told that we have the option of reading the whole page- or two pages in the case of a centerfold spread, at once. One takes in the entire grid before choosing to linger, or zip through. The reader is the ‘director’. Here one enjoys the ability to read the entire history of comics, in one sweep. From _ to Sailor Moon, from “Notary Sojac” to Kirby photo montage ( yep, they’re all in there, and more), it’s all here, stuffed (ironically?) into a literary ghetto. Whether I read Crane’s Maggie, or not ( early money: ‘not’. My social realism days may be over. I did garner an ‘A’ for a tenth grade term paper on Zola’s Germinal, so there’s that.), this comic has its own story to tell.
And the 2023 Bestiest:
Plaza, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2022: A comics spectacle that is in constant motion, and incorporates deafening sound into its design through the use of onomatopoeia. There is an even more minimal story than some of his previous manga ( a parade ) and Plaza foregrounds comics’ potential as an art form by emphasizing its formal elements. It’s in black and white with textured screens (it really doesn’t need color ), and its Kirby-esque dynamism is just as compelling and propulsive as the King’s, at his peak. It’s quite possible that this will be one of the more influential comics to come along in years.
I’m midway through Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. It’s my Post Modern Brick du jour, succeeding Sot Weed Factor. I have to be a bit dialed in to read it- there’s a lot of classical philosophy allusions, and medieval fortification allusions, so I block out some time so I can google the terms, and don’t consider it a fail to get through 5 pages a sitting. Plaza is much the same. One gets in the mood for its spectacle of crashing, rolling, thrumming sound effects which one must actually peer through to get to the visual action. There, exotically costumed humanoids march and cavort in front of a cheering crowd, transforming themselves before out eyes.
Since there’s no plot, one is not in a hurry to get anywhere ( I average 10 pages ) The manga is itself, ink and abstraction and symbol, and not a series of illustrations of ‘writing’, or source material.
This is relatively unusual, and again the reference point is Kirby. He was not afraid to let the stylized ink marks tell the story, and wound up helping to launch a multibillion dollar film franchise. Manga is big money in Japan, not so much, here, but if it ever gets there, we may put Yokoyama up there with Tezuka and Otomo as a reason why. To paraphrase, Plaza is comics for comics’ sake.
The Resties: This is my catch-all honorable mention category for comic book critical analysis, history, and older titles I’m just now catching up on, in no particular order:
Goddess of War, Lauren Weinstein, 2006: Weinstein tell a story of a woman disaffected with her job as the Goddess of War, who falls in love with Geronimo as he battles the U.S. Cavalry in the 19th Century Southwest. She apparently never finished it, or I might have ranked it higher. She later wrote a graphic novel about motherhood during COVID, but I haven’t read it, and we already have one COVID-addled family on this list.
Jimbo’s Inferno, Gary Panter, 2006: Again, I cannot compare it to the original, but Panter warns us right off not to base our term papers on it. The vision of hell as a giant mall is just too rich to resist. It’s not as searing as Jimbo In Paradise, or as visually exquisite as Daltokyo, but Panter rarely disappoints. Again, his invention is dependent on source material. These works exemplify why comics must be treated as their own art form, and not derivative of a source in prose.
Black Hole, Charles Burns, 1999: Burns’ dark vision of a teen plague probably draws from David Lynch’s work, especially Blue Velvet, with its sexual overtones and horrifying weirdness. And it sparked a revival of horror comics, though few were able to match its Lynchian blend of bland suburban creepiness and hyperreal visuals.
All of the Marvels, Douglas Wolk, 2023: I mostly quit reading Marvel Comics in 1978, when I discovered Euro comics, and then, Love and Rockets. This book isn’t nearly as tedious as it sounds, and summarizes a lot of the major threads, including much of the source material for the movies, in a lively way. As with Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, and Dante’s Inferno, reading this in no way commits me to reading all of the Marvels.
Kramer’s Ergot#4, Sammy Harkham, ed. 2004: The break through publication of both the best comics anthology of the 21st Century, and the influential comics art brut of the Fort Thunder group. Its rarity and significance made it hard to find for under $250, but lately as people realize what they have, the market has softened, and I found it for under $100 after years of searching.
As comics finds its artistic niche and its intellectual defenders, landmark publications such as this, and many of Panter’s masterpieces, often self published, or with small print runs, continue to be out of print collector’s items on the secondary market. I don’t know how that will affect Hanselman, Blexbolex and Hensley, though the latter two show signs of being hard to find already. Anthologies such as Kramer’s allow one to explore new, innovative artists without too much guesswork. They can often be found fairly cheaply in used bookstores- for a while at least.
I usually include a “Clunker”, but I’m not sure about the name, as many of them are very readable books. That’s true here, and there are two of them this year, but I recommend these books because they’re actually excellent reads, but with glaring flaws.
Jews in American Comics, Paul Buhle, 2008: The fact that Jewish people were essential in the development of American Comics, and indeed, American humor as a whole, has been an open secret for decades. This book explores that truth in depth, offering fascinating, if perhaps a bit muddy, accounts of seminal Yiddish comics in the early 20th Century Jewish press, solid accounts of EC comics and the undergrounds, and alternative press innovators such as Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. It remains on my shelf, to be read again.
But how on Earth you can write a book about Jews in American comics, and mention, only in passing, Jacob Kurtzburg and Stanley Leiber, is beyond me. Lee’s Yiddishisms seem essential to the humanizing spirit of Marvel, and what is Spider-Man but a classic schlemiel with an insect bite? As to Kirby, this is a man who portrayed a character punching Hitler in the jaw, long before Pearl Harbor made the rest of the ‘Greatest generation’ feel comfortable in saying Der Fuhrer must go. And forgive my gentile’s vagueness on the details, but those stoneware husks, fizzing and crackling with light and energy, from which Kirby’s super beings often emerge- do they not seem familiar? [ Fantastic Four #61 for one citation ) Ben Grimm, The Thing in Fantastic Four, is later portrayed as definitively Jewish. We are all wearied by the sheer volume of schlock Marvel has put out over the years, but Marvel definitely belongs in a history of Jewish comics.
There is, I’m guessing, the issue of assimilation, but that haunts all of Jewish pop culture, from Superman onward, as Buhle discusses at length. Buhle is a fan of alternatives, as am I, and that lineage leads pretty directly from EC to Undergrounds and then on. But that’s not what the title suggests, is it? The omission is puzzling to me.
Comic Book Women, Peyton Brunet and Blair Davis, 2023: As with Jews, I was excited to see this title. It is indeed necessary and worthy as a corrective to the male-centric histories of comics’ Golden Age, 1938-1955. These narratives, a precursor to the boy’s club of comics fandom in the 70’s and 80’s, did a lot to close off comics to women and girls, after they’d been a huge part of the audience. Brunet and Davis explore women’s roles as creators and characters, and among the many intriguing assertions made is that it was a woman editor at Fiction House who actually invented the vaunted ‘Marvel Method’ of Lee, Kirby and Ditko. The book is, again, well worth a second read. Its scope is limited, and it does not deal with the slow struggle of women for a place in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, in the U.S. and Japan.
However, it, too, is plagued by editorial error. The book unfailingly gives credit to female creators, but none to males, in its illustrations. This sounds like a quibble, I admit. But it is academically sloppy and projects pettiness, in the sense that male creators at the time were only somewhat less marginalized than women. This calls into question the professionalism of not only feminist pop culture scholarship, but comics scholarship as a whole, something the still nascent disciplines can ill afford.
This is published by University of Texas press. University presses exist to a large degree to publish tenure-track research, and doctoral theses, and are undoubtedly mostly staffed by poorly paid interns. But someone needed to call bullshit. As for Jews, it’s published by New Press, a non profit that I think, seeks to fulfill a similar mission as a university press. This seems a problem of vision, and the definitive book on Jews in comics doesn’t seem to exist yet.
That’s the Besties for this year. I read over 40 books that qualified, and really, enjoyed most, on some level. This list is intended to alert art-minded readers that very creative work is out there, along with interpretive materials.
It’s a busy year, so I don’t know when I’ll post on comics again, but I certainly have a mind to do a post on Shigeru Sugiura, a mid century alt-manga genius who helped set me on the road to enjoying Japanese artists, such as our Bestiest. If you are in the 303, nice places to shop alt comics are Kilgore Book and Comics, and Fahrenheit’s Books. If you prefer the web, check out Copacetic Comics. Comment below if you think I may have missed a recent book on this list.
#comics #alternativecomics #besties