Over their long rich, history, the Besties have established a tradition of… um, being 3 years old and changing in format every time. Of ignoring SEO-building topics such as best-selling novels and important prose non-fiction to concentrate on the best comics. Of not always focussing on the past year’s comics and being mostly about what my limited budget and the public library gets around to offering. Not even counting down, like a proper, click-bait, end-of-year list, and sometimes starting with the Bestiest. I see no reason to change a winning formula.
A little history: I have honestly always tried to start with books published in the last year or two. Mauretania, Comics From a New World, Chris Reynold’s haunting, dystopian 80’s comics in a new collection by Seth won the first; White Cube, by Brett VandeBroucke, a very penetrating and hilarious satire of the fine arts world, the second, and Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s noir mystery about 30’s Hollywood, last year.
I have been known to count (known) gender representation in anthologies; So I’ll give a rough count here (excluding anthologies), of white males, versus non-white male, in the 4 years I’ve named names: 30 and 33, respectively. I’ve been known to mention rampant American exceptionalism in comics history; so I’ll give an estimate of North Americans v. European/Japanese: 35 and 19. It looks relatively balanced, though of course, not an exact study.
I’ll add some Resties (honorable mentions), which include things I’ve rediscovered or newly discovered, critical writings and surveys. There will be a Bestiest of the Resties: There was none the first year; the second was Dan Mazur’s and Alexander Danner’s Comics: A Global History, 1968-Present, a much needed, non-American exceptionalist survey of comics from leading producers which opened my eyes to Japan as the first to explore comics’ potential for creative self-expression; and none the third year. I’m bringing it back.
The rules, looking suspiciously like no rules, having been murkily defined, the envelope, please:
Besties: This was a tough one this year. I eliminated a few very good ones, including Coin-Op #8, by Peter and Maria Hoey, that is actually from 2019, but I ordered it this year. The winner is also from 2019, and one of the Resties is from 2017, I just forgot to include it last year. I never got to current books by Tillie Walden and others that will undoubtedly be seen next year. I only now ordered a Tsuge collection that will almost certainly skew next year’s list. There should be an investigation:
Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, 2021: Matt Fraction wrote the 2011 Marvel series being referenced by Disney+’ Hawkeye series. He brought buddy-movie thrills and spills to that, and now takes on the uber absurd Comics Code era DC comics featuring “Superman’s Pal” and a whole bunch of gorillas and aliens and monstrous transformations that Jimmy went through. So maybe you have to have grown up in the era of the 12-centers to appreciate the humor and the in jokes, but it’s a comic book, for gosh sakes, and Fraction, with all his meta narratives, gets that.
Bradley of Him, Conor Willumsen, 2021: I liked the post-apocalyptic hedonism of Antigone better. Willumsen is always edgy, disturbingly so, and the protagonist here is obsessed, like many of our current public figures, politicians, media figures, celebrities. The setting is Las Vegas, capital of narcissistic obsession. The soft, rubbery pencils only add to the tension, which is of course left unresolved at the end.
Monstress Volume 6, Charlotte Liu and Sana Takeda 2021: These types of ongoing series are tough to judge in installments, as I’ve mentioned before. This horror/fantasy tale is not ended yet, and I never did track down Volume 4 with the library closed for shutdown. But rereading Volume 1 did not dissipate its skin-crawling intrigue and its world-building grandeur, all its steam punk glory and dark tangled relationships. This volume was no different, and if it sometimes felt a bit pot boiler-ish, I’m not ready to make that assessment yet. So did Lord of the Rings, and that’s the echelon this tale aspires to, though it is much more violent and racially charged.
Le Grande Odalisque, Jerome’ Mulot and Florent Ruppert 2021: Three luscious, lusty, bisexually hedonistic women decide to steal an Ingres, arousing all the fire power the police can muster; and I’m sure, the scorn of the cultural guardians, both right and left. But reasonable readers will see these as action heroes with brains, wit and verve. And above all, agency- they drive the spectacular action and the loose limbed art allows for a sexy physicality without the static airbrushed obsessiveness of most action comics. This is a caper movie waiting to happen, with a subtext of revenge sex bringing a tinge of melancholy to the almost non-stop thrills. Traditional, Euro-comics genre with a modern twist.
Press Enter to Continue, Ana Galvan, 2019: In candy colors, faux offset textures and simple, cipher-like drawings, this Spanish artist offers vaguely surreal stories of people who don’t quite trust their own realities. This is precision paranoia, where tigers appear to feed on the workaday masses, and people dive into pools only to run up into the inside of a TV screen. There is no rhyme or reason to these tales, only a feeling of alienation and dread.
Galvan’s style is evolving quickly. An earlier appearance in Now anthology featured a Steven Weismann-influenced short about two adolescent girl ponies lying to each other as one steals the other’s boyfriend. The pony imagery heightens the sense of loss of innocence. There is the realization that it would be nearly impossible to do this sort of story in TV or film. She has a new book out this month. The drawings are emblematic, almost ideographic, and the combination of words, colors and drawings reads like a new language. You can read it in a half hour ( though it demands to be returned to) and it costs less than $20 and is in fact, art. It’s why I like to do these Besties.
Everything is Flammable, Gabrielle Bell: 2017. I don’t seem to have included it when I read it, probably in 2019-20, and I haven’t had the occasion to include any of Bell’s work, which is wry, subtly compelling and quietly hilarious autobiographical diary/memoir comics about her own life. The Voyeurs and Truth is Fragmentary cover her earlier years as an introverted but driven comics artist appearing at comics festivals worldwide.
This is her first full length memoir and tells of her off-the-grid mother’s struggles after losing her house to a fire in Northern California’s notorious Humboldt County. It deals with Bell’s strange ‘feral’ childhood and her fraught relationship with her mom, in light of her stepfather’s abusive behavior. All in simple yet very evocative caricature and subdued color. Again, the quality that I think makes almost all of these comics here appeal to me is that their stories can really only be told in pen and ink.
World Map Room, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2013: A quirky, recondite story of three men traveling into and thru a sprawling city to a mysterious appointment. There is a graphic unity in the way the angular black and white buildings, planes and people interact with the copious (Japanese) sound effects as if Onomatopoeia (sounds) were a player in the strange drama. Remember when Lynch parlayed ambient machine sounds into a sort of subtle steampunk horror in Eraserhead? The whole effect is unease, as if violence were imminent. However, the story remains open ended, with other chapters promised in the author’s notes, which I haven’t found. I found this on CopaceticComics.com, my go-to for catching up on the manga translations of the much lamented PictureBox books, now deceased. I became obsessed with their revivals of Garo-era alt-manga pioneers such as Hayashi and Sugiera, so I’ve been exploring modern Japanese alternatives. Japan, which has the largest comics industry in the world, has been easy to ignore because there are so few canonical translations, but that is ending, and we should pay attention.
Art vs Comics, Bart Beaty, 2012: As revealing about modern art as it is about comics. Understanding Liechtenstein’s appropriation of 50’s juvenile comics is not easy for comics fans, who often see a copyist who made millions. Incorporating pop culture innovations into fine arts is not easy for ‘high’ art aficionados, who often willfully ignore, e.g., Crumb’s obvious influence on Phillip Guston’s best work. These are essays without jargon, and without the reverse snobbery of ‘Team Comics’ that examine important visual truths about comics and art in a balanced way. I’ll be reading it again soon.
Trots and Bonnie, Shari Flenniken, 2021: Underground comics epitomized the underlying sexism of the 60’s ‘free love’ movement, but also provided a voice for the second wave feminist rebuttal. Shari Flenniken’s was a forgotten voice among those of Trina Robbins’, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s, and others’, but no more. Her 70’s National Lampoon series has finally been collected, along with extra material and her comments. Her dark, yet very non puritanical sexual satire satisfies a need for sexual truth to counterbalance the programatic puritanism of both right and left, as evidenced by the fact that they consistently pass the laugh test. She published a new comic ( hilarious!) in a 2020 Rotland Press “Dreadfuls” anthology that was under consideration for this list. We can only hope that means her return to the fray is imminent.
Bestiest of the Resties:
Dal Tokyo, Gary Panter, 2011: I’ve gotten myself on a another Gary Panter jag. This was originally started with my Raw magazine obsession during the punk years, and revived by a purchase of Cola Madnes on the Copacetic site, from their ‘Deals’ section, which I plunder regularly, looking for gems that escaped my attention or budget first time around. Panter filters American pop culture through his own experience, separating signal from noise in dense, punk-inflected images.
Dal Tokyo is a 4 panel comic strip, first serialized in the L.A. Reader in the mid-80’s, then in Japan’s Riddim magazine in the mid-90’s through the oughts. It takes place on Mars, in a colony populated by Japanese and Texan immigrants (‘Dal’), but the original storyline peters out during its second run.
What’s fascinating about Dal Tokyo is the ways it pushes the the then dying strip medium forward at a time when other formats were beginning to emerge to stretch comics’ legs creatively. This was post-underground comics and in the middle of the punk/zine/ DIY wave of the late 70’s early 80’s.
Panter’s ‘ratty line’, an ironic, expressionistic commentary on Herge’s ‘clear line’ and classic strip masters such as Caniff, rather than a repudiation of those things, is emblematic of his punk roots. It sometimes obscures the real innovations he brought, and his relation to classic masters, such as even Winsor McKay, whose fantastic world-building Panter equals in this noir sci-fi. It relates to his harrowing Jimbo Adventures in Paradise (1988, recently re-released by New York Review Books), and the punk slapstick Cola Madnes (early 80’s, unpublished until PictureBox rescued it in 2000).
This Fantagraphics edition is 6 1/4” high, a big improvement over previous collections. But these are not the only innovations that a larger edition is good for. Panter, in Dal Tokyo, has also revived the lost art of page design in comic strips. While 3-4 panel dailies have not featured this in decades, since Milton Caniff, few explore its potential like Panter, who creates kinetic 4-panel vistas on dynamic diagonals with cross-hatched grays vying with blacks and whites.
I doubt it’s an aesthetic reach to ascribe his layered darks and lights to Japanese Edo printmaking, as Panter is a) a printmaker, and b) clearly interested in Japanese culture. At the same time, it’s arguable that this is the last of the great comic strips. Paradise and Madnes were conceived as graphic novels, however segmented and fragmentary they are. Dal Tokyo was always a strip, four panels put out at regular intervals (first weekly, then monthly).
By the second run, Panter had changed his style, working with nibs instead of Rapidograph, and his narrative approach, from sci-fi noir to abstract free association words and pictures. Yet the first two (-ish) years of Dal Tokyo, which is not part of the Jimbo stories, but features Okupant X, a kindred soul, continues Panter’s exploration of the everyman’s search for meaning in a dystopian society.
We who are passionate about the music of the era have often failed to see the fragmented poetry of Panter’s punk comics art, and how it tread a pioneering path between high and low art, as John Carlin so well described in Masters of American Comics. Dal Tokyo’s spotty publishing history shouldn’t obscure its achievement.
Note: I would provide an image here, as it would definitely be fair use, but both Besties are published by Fantagraphics, which has an extremely restrictive excerpt policy.