It’s about time I posted. This blog is now over 10 years old, and long gaps between posts have been a regular feature, which never fail to shame me, not to mention obliterate my minuscule SEO, so as soon as I got some holiday downtime, I brewed an extra pot of coffee and sat down to catch up.
I’ll post about what the new year holds as far as classes and exhibitions soon, but after a frantic year end I’m ready for an escape, and comics have always been my escape. They actually do somewhat relate to graphics as a commercial print medium. But I first started these reading lists as a way of breaking up non-stop posts about me and my work, a sort of ‘Sunday features’ section for the blog that would also up the content for the blog, and take advantage of a perceived niche for comics criticism that explicates the power of this ancient but misunderstood medium to a more general audience. That’s the theory. I patterned my contributions somewhat after Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree column from the Believer.
This year turns out to be end-of-the-decade, of course, so my second ever Besties list is now, grandiosely, Besties of the Decade. There will be no klieg lights, no red carpet. I do have most of a bottle of decent Rye whiskey and some antipasti left over from Christmas; c’mon over.
The metric for inclusion is innovation and unique vision, but clarity in both design and narrative is also a huge factor. Still, stuff that makes me wonder just what the hell the author is on about is not necessarily a bad thing, if there’s some richness or intrigue to the vision. There’s a fair amount of diversity here, mostly in gender, but there are creators from Europe and England and America, comics intended for kids and many others that have been challenged in libraries, and many different genres. Reminder: comics are not themselves a genre, as the more ignorant and denigrating observers would have you believe. They are a medium. I’ve always been attracted to comics’ ability to offer expression to marginalized creators, so I don’t think the amount of women here is a surprise. There’s stylistic diversity, too, with clear line-type projects probably predominant, but more expressive, and even cartoon brut type of styles definitely included, especially in the catch-all of the anthology.
If I was to predict it before I sat down to make the list, I wouldn’t have expected so many ‘mainstream’ projects to make the list. This is defined fuzzily as output of large publishers with fairly high sales numbers, though increasingly, the lines blur. Most here is from the creator-owned Image line, not surprisingly, and it’s probably best to point out that the Marvel Now re-boot that that spawned a lot of brave interpretations of mostly B-list Marvel characters ( such as the Hawkeyes) is long gone. With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tail is now definitely wagging the dog, as far as I can tell. It’s also worth noting that to make any even minimal effort to keep up with that stuff, you need to visit the off-the-beaten-track Direct Market shops, and I just don’t do that so much. I keep my eyes peeled for worthy efforts, but I still think most of it is dreck. I don’t apologize for sticking mainly to the small press, bookstore-oriented things.
Still, about a third of the top ten and over 25% of the list when including Honorable Mentions is ‘mainstream’ product, which just goes to show you what can happen when the giants think outside of the long box, because those numbers in no way accurately represent the total out put on a month-to-month basis.
I’m going to milk this by going bottom to top, with the Honorable Mentions ( Resties) first, in no particular order, then the #9-2 Besties and ending with the coveted “Bestiest”. Roughly, the 10 Besties are in order of when they popped into my mind, so the last ones came to me first, and thus have a certain amount of memorability attached to them, a valid attribute in a top 10-type list.
Kramer’s Ergot #8, 2011; #9, 2016 #10, 2019; Sammy Harkham, Editor: Cheating here by including all the issues of the decade, but they’re never disappointing, and include nice samples of many current trends such as Cartoon Brut which I define as a concern for an essential graphic truth and the material properties of ink along with highly personalized interpretation of timeless comics tropes; and Fort Thunder School, a group that came out of a Providence R.I. art collective; mixed in with giants of the earlier alt-comics, such as Steven Weissman; and also Harkham’s own work, striking in its unrelenting camera eye and quiet, charged backgrounds. Now, Mome and other anthologies are worthy things to search out as well.
Supreme, Blue Rose , Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay: Meta-fictional re-boot of a meta-fictional Alan Moore reboot of a typically Marvel-esque original Image superheroby Rob Liefeld in the 90’s. In which, interestingly, the super hero never appears. Yes, like many mainstream comics, the backstory is complex and nearly impenetrable, but Tula Lotay’s lush charismatic graphics, and Warren Ellis’s antic storytelling make this an obscure work of genius, worth going onto Wikipedia to research the past iterations, as I had to. In a comic book store, it is sometimes rewarding to let your eyes lead you.
Super Mutant Magic Academy 2015: Jillian Tamaki forged an award-winning career in YA with her cousin Mariko starting in the Oughts with the exquisite coming-of-age/ coming out tale Skim. Lately she’s appeared to be interested in crossing over into a traditional general adult bookstore market, and published Boundless, which was critically well received but which I confess, seemed a bit precious and over wrought to me. I prefer this simple, hilarious web comic about interspecies gifted youth at a Harry Potter-like private academy, which coalesces very organically into ( again) a coming out tale.
How to Be Happy, 2014 and Frontier #7, Eleanor Davis: A simple, fleshy tangibility to her drawings; a provocative moral insistence in her tales. The first, a collection of post- and pre-apocalyptic short stories, the second, a small press one-off exploration of alternative sexuality.
Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley: Antic send up of Archie/Richie Rich Harvey Comics of the 60’s with satiric implications of today’s celebrity and mega-rich obsessed pop culture. Also did a Tubby ( Little Lulu’s frenemy)/ Alfred Hitchcock mash-up to satirize the petulant, entitled white male auteurs of 50’s cinema.
Leaving Richard’s Valley 2019: Prolific Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has at least 6 books that I considered, all of them innovative in their ways, and very provocative. He explores modern narcissism, among other things, with one story featuring a scene where the implied main human character asks for, and receives, a blow job from his computer’s operating system. This one is about friendship, emotional manipulation and betrayal, and is graphically the most original work on this list, seamlessly blending childish funny animal abstractions with computer graphic/photographic textures.
Sex Fantasy Sophia Foster-Dimino 2017: Originally published as mini-comics ( yes the zine/DIY scene is alive and well in modern comics, along with its web comic offspring). These are simple but highly affecting speculations on what people want from sex and relationships, and how the two often conflict.
On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden, 2018: Young Adult masterpiece that proves how surprisingly cogent that rapidly growing category can be. A young girl wrestles with professional and sexual identity in a beautiful sci fi universe. No male-identifying character appears, innovative in itself.
Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, 2013 : A candidate for Bestiest though the writer and cartoonist have taken a year long break, mid-saga ( a return is rumored to be soon). A young, mixed-species couple and their child battle prejudice and violence in a universe of never ending war. Humor, sex and Staples’ very original character designs distinguish this from your everyday space opera. The creative team say that it was designed to be a comic book only, but someone will eventually make a movie of this one, and you should read it first.
Hawkeye, Matt Fraction and David Aja, 2012. The only true super hero comic on these lists, but one that very convincingly and very affectingly explores what a super hero’s off-time hours might be like, in a hilarious and graphically concise and innovative way. Turns out Clint (Hawkeye) is somewhat of a slacker/wastrel. Fraction makes use of running gags to highlight complex, humanistic psychologies better than any writer in comics. He’s married to Kelly Sue DeConnick ( below). What I’d give to sit in for the weekend, after-studio unwinding after their kids are in bed and their many unique projects wrapped for the week. Funny, heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and again, something that only one medium can deliver. A sequel by Kelly Thompson featured a second Hawkeye character from this series, Kate Bishop, and did not fall too far adrift of the Resties.
Building Stories 2012: Chris Ware designs a box of comics in various, allusive formats (e.g: a Little Golden Book knock-off, A newspaper broad sheet about a bee who lives in a discarded Coke can in a vacant lot next to the titular building, a game board) that form a complete narrative in time and space of a Victorian-era apartment building and its inhabitants in a Chicago neighborhood.
Stroppy, Marc Bell, 2015: Very appealing comedy of a class-strictured future world where Stroppy, a Candide-like workingman, becomes a somewhat passive victim of control systems that benefit the rich and famous. With one (Big) Foot planted firmly in the roots of comics ( E.C. Segar, as channeled through Crumb) and another in the nihilism and dystopian vision of the Fort Thunder movement, Bell comes across as a sort of Carl Barks on acid, with Stroppy a man-child in a cartoon world he never made.
Coyote Doggirl, Lisa Hanawalt 2018: this deceptively candy-colored cartoon brut adventure reads like a feminist Lonely Are The Brave, by Abbey. To preserve her independence from victim hood after a rape, Coyote Doggirl escapes into the essential girlhood sexual fantasy of a girl and her horse in the wilderness.
Beverly, Nick Drnaso, 2016: Preternaturally quiescent and unsettling stories of families and youth in extremis, and yet trying to preserve normality, these gem-like stories reminded me of nothing so much as Salinger’s. The washed out pastels and deadpan line work adds to the chill. I have nothing against his second book Sabrina, nominated for the Mann-Booker prize, but this was my first encounter with Drnaso who seems to share with me and others a love of the short story format in comics, which belies the commercial format/ categorical catch all term ‘graphic novel.’
Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, 2013. 2015, 2019: Would have been on this list in any case, even if this Fall’s volume, The Rat, still incomplete, had not breathed fresh fire into DeConnick’s multi part poetic apocalypse. If I felt Volume 2 ( The Bear), set in WWI, flagged a bit after the startling and allusive Volume 1 ( The Shrike), kicked things off with its violent and compelling goth/ spaghetti western/ medicine show fabulism, The Rat proves there is nothing in mainstream comics like Pretty Deadly, by a mile. Emma Rios makes visual narrative subordinate to the double paged spread/montage, rather than the panel grid. Jordie Bellaire, not one of the copyright holders, but clearly a full creative partner in the enterprise, channels the subdued pinks and violets of Western landscapes and suppressed feminine yearnings; the acidic greens of poison gas and the lurid yellows and oranges of Hollywood puppet animation to DeConnick’s vision. Death’s Garden unleashes ambiguously motivated Reapers to call home various members of a black family from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. There really is no tidy summary of all the plot threads possible because DeConnick refuses to be limited to one interpretation. Suffice to say that feminine archetypes rich in the violence and striving of their agency, abound. This comic may be the first to warrant the reader’s guide to allusions ala Pynchon and Wallace; I predict the critical literature will be extensive when the epic ( 2 more parts are planned) finally ends. Don’t know if it’s even possible to make a movie of this. One of the entries on this list that can really, only be done with comics. Those who believe that the cultural ‘future is female’ are fools to ignore the comics medium, Where KSD, as the blogosphere calls her, weaves a tale that even she, one suspects, is not sure of all the implications. I, for one, am happy to watch her resolve it on the fly.
That leads us to the:
Bestiest : This is meant to highlight a book that had real impact on me both at the time I first read it, and sustained relevance as the decade has gone by, through multiple re-readings. Once I’d been reminded of White Cube, Brecht Vanden Broucke, 2014, which I’d read in the middle of the decade, there really was no challenger for Bestiest. I read it for the 3rd time recently and it is still finely poised between punk nihilism and artistic conceptual subtlety, in a painterly style that nods both to cartoon brut and Little Lulu. It’s funny, highly transgressive, yet strangely thoughtful in its explorations about how art enters our daily lives. The pink-skinned twins who star in this collection of mostly ‘silent’ strips, single panel vignettes and double page tableaus insist upon their own artistic vision as they wage their 2-man war against the aesthetic authority of the White Cube gallery world. They paint large blue thumb’s up “Like” symbols on the gallery masterpieces and are chased from the White Cube, but they always return. They are every newspaper and comic book anti hero, from Bushmiller’s Sluggo, to Herge’s Thomson and Thompson, to Bart Simpson.
Comics, the marginalized, censored step child of pop culture, also have a difficult and complex relationship with the authorities of the art world, as exemplified in this Russ Manning mini-memoir on Liechtenstein’s uncredited ‘appropriation‘ of his images for his paintings. White Cube is the first comic to fully address this relationship which is ground-breaking in itself, but it also comfortably inhabits both worlds, those of challenging art and reflexive anarchy, which is an essential feature of modern comics’ renaissance.
I’m going to include a separate list on books about comics, and I’m going to exclude retrospective collections from the first list, and include them in the second. This mini adjunct to the Besties separates important collections of forgotten or ignored past work and also needed exegeses on comics history from contemporary fictional projects. It expands the number of books listed to 22, but is fully justified in this historically significant decade, when comics expanded into the bookstore market (being credited with giving bookstores a rare area to expand sales) and innovation was rampant.
This is where we see, in no particular order:
John Stanley: Giving Life to LIttle Lulu by Bill Schelley, 2018: Died this year and will be missed. He recognized that John Stanley, a frustrated genius of the anonymous, marginalized ‘hack’ era of comics in the 50’s was one of the funniest and most relevant writers of his time. He explicates Lulu’s surprising verisimilitude to the actions of children (not to mention her status as one of the few authentic feminist voices of the time).
The Comics Journal #302 , Gary Groth, Editor, 2013: This 300-page issue of the comics magazine of record was probably a marketing fiasco, as the magazine disappeared from print for several years after that, having only and thankfully being revived last year. But it’s a comics fan’s feast with its many and diverse articles on such intriguing and little-covered subjects as Mort Weisinger, R. Crumb’s copyright lawyer, and Maurice Sendak. Comic Art magazine is much lamented after disappearing in the Oughts, but TCJ soldiers on with the recent Simon Hanselman interview an example of comics journalism addressing such relevant topics as gender fluidity and political correctness in the comics blogosphere.
Mauretania: Comics From a New World, Chris Reynolds, 2018 : Words cannot express how besotted I’ve always been with this obscure 80’s/90’s British comic replete with unresolved narratives; evocative inks and somehow infused with the thick light of Wales and Southern England. Its hero, Monitor, quests after meaning in a vaguely dystopian near future. Another character, a detective, dies but mysteriously reappears and doesn’t recognize her family. A quixotic visual tone poem curated by Seth, whose own title, Palookaville, was also a viable contender for this list.
Somnambulance Fiona Smyth, 2018: Again, a forgotten fave from the first explosion of alternative black and whites from the 80’s. Here again a distinctly feminist vision first finds voice in comics, and Smyth’s luscious sensual inks also foreground transgender and gender queer imagery and narrative, a real ground breaker in that area.
Drawn Together 2012: Aline Kominsky-Crumb pioneered feminist self-published comics ( along with Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, et al) in the underground era, then embarked on a brilliant lifelong collaboration with husband R. Crumb, with each illustrating one half of each panel of an autobiographical comic series about their lives, sex lives and marriage. The unlikely combination of her scratchy primitivism with his classic big-foot style, along with their decidedly unapologetic politically incorrect narrative (feminists hated Crumb’s sexualized women, and her unabashed masochism) was far more than the sum of its parts, as this 30 year retrospective brilliantly proves. Kominsky-Crumb, like other women of the 80’s comics scene, is finally getting her due as a pioneer cartoonist and editor who advanced female creative agency.
The Origins of Comics Thierry Smolderen, 2014 : A somewhat academic endeavor, but after a false start with one literary theory-clotted excerpt published in Comic Art magazine in the Oughts, Smolderen cleaned up and focussed his rhetoric and published this important survey of the (mostly European, sorry, American exceptionalists) roots of comics. In it, he argues convincingly for the early proto-comics of those such as Topfer as dynamic precursors to modernist art and cinema, rather than outgrowths of the academic, moralizing tableaus of such popular image-makers as Hogarth.
Comics: A Global History Dan Mazur and R. Alexander Danner, 2014 : Indispensable and ground breaking in its scope which includes Europe and Japan, as well as England and America. A real eye-opener as to the interweaving threads of the development of comics as a medium in the current period. I do regret that it doesn’t cover comics from the Golden Age on; but that would have been a different and much more expensive project to publish, and we need this sort of critical vision right now. Wonderfully illustrated and researched. If like me, you’ve regretted your ignorance of Manga, which was first to advance self-expression as a legitimate function of comics in the 60’s, then the chapters on the Japanese scene are very welcome.
There is a Clunker this year, a work that should have been much better than it was, not necessarily bad, or unreadable in this case, but a real drop off from past work. Jerry Moriarty is a massive figure in the NYC school of alternative cartoonists of the punk-inflected 80’s Raw Magazine crowd. His first book, Jack Survives straddles very purposefully the line between comics and art, with its lush colors and Hopper-esque sense of place and time. But his newest project, What’s a Paintoonist? a speculation on himself as a little girl, married to an account of moving his studio upstate, has an unfinished and deflective, even detached, feel to it as if he just couldn’t buy into the concept. It has its moments, but was ultimately pretty meh.
So there you have it. The sample size was huge, not to mention the worthy contenders that I never got to read, or simply forgot. I surprised myself by leaving long-time favorites such as Los Bros Hernandez, Gabrielle Bell, and Peter and Maria Hoey off the list, as well as striking newish cartoonists such as Anya Davidson and Dash Shaw. All these cartoonists are innovative and important in their own right; I tried to sneak in enough mentions to exemplify just how hard this list was to compose.
Most are under $30, or available at the library. It’s an extremely vibrant medium, with many genres available within, such as Darwin Cooke’s very entertaining Parker adaptations of Donald E. Westlake crime novels. In a time-pressed world, it’s nice to have something quick to escape to, and now you can have the bestiest.