Man Out of Time: Comics

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There are three major problems I have with writing about comics for this “favorites of the decade” post:

  1. One of my best pals is a comics critic, and I always feel like I’m coming up short when I try to discuss comics around him.
  2. I can’t draw worth a damn and always feel like I’m coming up short when describing the visual side of comics.
  3. I have no idea what constitutes the “of the decade” part of “favorite comics of the decade.”

See, I love Chris Ware’s book, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, but, while it was published in 2000, it’s actually a collection of comics published in the ’90’s. Do I include that, or do I only consider books in which most of the work was originally published this decade? Because so many comics are first produced as serials, I’ll have to make an arbitrary ruling on this.

Because it really was a hell of a decade for collections of pre-2000 work. There were massive volumes of the Hernandez Brothers’ great Love & Rockets comics, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo Sunday comics (reprinted at their original size!), the first volumes of the complete Popeye strips by E.C. Segar, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, the three-volume collected Calvin & Hobbes, Humbug, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s gekiga books, Bill Mauldin’s Willie & Joe, the World War II Years, Jim Woodring’s Book of Frank, the complete Peanuts series, Tales of the Bizarro World (the 1950’s reprints), Scott McCloud’s Zot! from 1987-1991, and a million more great collections. Had it come out on time, the collected Alec comics by Eddie Campbell, The Years Have Pants, would have been at the top of my comics list, even though many of the comics in it are pre-2000. (One of my pals says he just found a copy in a comic store, but I’m still waiting for an Amazon delivery of it.) I have no idea if it’s a great time to be a reader of mainstream/superhero comics, but it sure is a blast to be a “literary” comics reader (with a steady job and decent income) in this era.

So I’ve tried to confine this list to comics that were mostly of this decade, but this would’ve been a much easier task at the end of the previous decade. Then I could have just recited the litany of usual suspects — Dan ClowesEightball, Pete Bagge’s Hate, Beto & Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, Seth’s Palookaville, R. Crumb’s Mystic Funnies and Self-Loathing Comics, Woodring, Panter, et al. — and seemed smart enough. Perhaps I’d have tossed in a somewhat obscure short story by David Mazzucchelli (Discovering America), to look even smarter!

But I’ve fallen off in my comics reading in recent years. It seems that the comics I most want to read are also the ones that take the most time to read. With my work and entertainment priorities, I really have to shut everything off to make time for good comics. I don’t think there’s a dearth of good new work; rather, there’s definitely a ton of new, likely worthy comics this decade that I simply haven’t read: Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (my only nod to The Bush Years theme for this series), Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Gary Panter’s Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory, Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, and on and on.

It’s sad, because comics have been part of me since I was a little child; they’re my first language, and I wish I could keep up with their conversation more than I do with novels, music or film. I have dreams occasionally about wandering through unreal malls or shopping plazas, and visiting the comic shops. I don’t recall if I ever find Hicksville-esque Comics That Should Have Been on those dream-walks, but there have been enough good ones for me to offer up another list:

Favorite Comics of the Decade

Wimbledon Green (2005) – Seth – I may’ve missed a step or two in Seth’s progression, but this is the comic where he seemed to get away from autobiographical comics and/or lead characters who bear an astonishing resemblance to Seth. The sketchbook style of the work seems to free him from an over-reliance on a 1940’s

New Yorker

cartooning style (which he employed very well, but had become too much of an identifier, in my opinion). The fragmented storytelling style presaged his next book . . .

George Sprott: 1894-1975 (2009) – Seth – . . . which was flat-out amazing. Expanded from Seth’s series of one-pagers in the NYTimes Magazine’s Funny Pages, this gorgeous book tells the story of lecturer, TV host, Arctic explorer, philanderer, one-time seminarian, Seth intersperses his not-so-omniscient narrator’s descriptions of the man’s life with interview-style passages with the people who knew Sprott. The complexity of the character belies Seth’s cartoony style, drawing the reader (this reader) into the life of a small-city semi-celebrity. I think it’s a remarkable comic; it’s my favorite of the year and may just be #1 among this list, too.

Ice Haven (2001) – Daniel Clowes – Only a few installments of Clowes’ Eightball were published this decade, but man were they good. Ice Haven is a repackaged edition of Eightball #22, and uses a number of different cartooning styles (in short bursts of a page or two) to tell the story of a small town in which a child may’ve been kidnapped in a Leopold & Loeb scenario. Clowes has a new book coming out in 2010, and I’m guessing that, if I’m writing this sorta post 10 years from now, it’ll be high up on my list.

The Death Ray (2004) – Daniel Clowes – Another standalone issue of Eightball (#23), this one sorta pays homage to 1970’s comics. It tells a “realistic” but utterly fractured superhero story, laden with Freudian weight and a deeply disturbed “hero.”

Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow / The End #1 (2006 / 2007) – Anders Nilsen – This guy’s fiancee got sick and died in a hurry, and these two books are an attempt to work through his grief. It has some of the saddest passages I’ve ever read in a comic and, even though the second volume ends on a somewhat redemptive note, I’m still sure that if I meet Nilsen I’ll want to give him a big hug and reassure him that life’s not that bad.

Jaime Hernandez‘s body of work – I have no idea how to relate the ongoing magnificence of Jaime Hernandez’s comics. In this case, the arbitrary decade-mark is silly. He and his brother Beto have continually produced some of the finest comics in history for nearly three decades now. Jaime’s comics from 1998 to 2007 (or so), collected in Locas II, a 400+ page volume, show a master storyteller working at the top of his game. Pick up the two Locas collections, and get to marvelin’.

Safe Area Gorazde / The Fixer (2001) – Joe Sacco – Comics reportage from hell on earth. In this case, Sarajevo during the war in the 1990’s. Sacco’s comics journalism is unprecedented and unparalleled, while his eye for caricature marks him as a mutant David Levine.

Achewood (2001-present) – Chris Onstad – The only online comic I follow, and one of the most bizarre and funniest things I’ve ever read. Shortly after we adopted Rufus, we came home to discover that he’d stolen one of Amy’s bras from the hamper. Thanks to Achewood, we could simultaneously quote Lyle, who said, “I’m lickin’ this bra! Found it at the police station!”

I Killed Adolf Hitler (2007) – Jason – It’s no Inglourious Basterds, but this 48-page time-travel-with-a-twist tale by Norwegian cartoonist Jason is one of the more delightful comics I’ve read. Several of Jason’s works have an O. Henry twist to them, but they’re a joy to read.

Kevin Huizenga’s body of work – A while ago, I asked my comics critic pal Tom who the good young comics talents are. I’d looked around at indy comics and had concluded that no one had stepped into the role once held by those usual suspects I mentioned above. Tom pointed me toward Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham, and I have to say that they’re the two best young (under 40) cartoonists I’ve seen this decade. I’m putting Huizenga on the list because I’ve read more of his work, but I don’t have an individual favorite comic by him. Still, he’s good enough that I can recommend you pick up just about anything he’s published, esp. his Glenn Ganges comics.

Essex County Trilogy (2009) – Jeff Lemire – Okay, this is one of my quirky ones. I met Lemire in May 2009 at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I bought the first installment of his Essex County trilogy, Tales from the Farm. I was mighty impressed by his story of a superhero-obsessed kid on a little farm in southwestern Ontario, dealing with the death of his mom. Lemire’s loose, scratchy inking made for lovely expressionistic pages. (Sure, maybe the kid looked like he was in his 50’s some panels, but hey.) This fall, I picked up the mammoth (500+ pages) edition containing all three of Lemire’s interlocking Essex County stories, as well as some side stories and ephemera. I think I dug this for the same reason I liked The Straight Story; the stories are earnest without being corny. The closest he comes to cheating is also the one moment that sorta choked me up, so I’m gonna let him slide. I can’t decide if he’s one of those “next generation of great young cartoonists” or if he’s “just” going to do good, strong work for the next dozen years. He’s moved from independent publisher Top Shelf to do a couple of series for the DC-owned Vertigo imprint; I’m sure the pay’s better, but I’m ambivalent about the work he’s produced for them. Which is its own conversation/blog post: am I really okay with an artist (in any field) who produces one really good work and never reaches those heights again? I like to think I am, but I still feel disappointed when subsequent works fall short. This is a lot more than I intended to write about Lemire’s comics.

All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely – The only superhero book on my list. Over the course of 12 issues, Morrison affectionately fuses modern storytelling and styles with some of the wackier elements of Superman comics from the ’50’s and ’60’s, ultimately elevating the character to the archetype of sun god. And it includes a 2-part story featuring my all-time favorite Superman concept: Bizarros. In this case, Superman discovers that, on a planet of 5 billion Bizarros, all meant to be the opposite of normal, one turns out to be the opposite of the opposite of normal. (He calls himself Zibarro and spends his time writing poetry and feeling misunderstood.)

Asterios Polyp (2009) – David Mazzucchelli – I just don’t know what to make of this book. It’s so phenomenally drawn and well-designed that I was floored when I read it, but there’s a sterility/flatness to many of the characters that undercuts Mazzucchelli’s story and the theory that underlies it. In that sense, it reminded me of the worst aspects of a Novel of Ideas. To its credit, it still has plenty life in it. it’s an important comic, just breathtaking in parts, and I’ll definitely give it more readings, so it makes my faves of the decade list.

Louis Riel (2004) – Chester Brown – This story of Canadian politician and resistance fighter Louis Riel is a beautiful, stark change of pace from Brown’s surrealism and his autobiographical tales. Also, it was the first book my wife ever bought me.

Fred The Clown (2004) – Roger Langridge – He portrays slapstick better than Lee Evans performs slapstick. No, not the wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills! The other Lee Evans! Roger’s all over my honorable mention list, but this is the book that I’ll flip through when I’m procrastinating downstairs in my library.

The Book of Genesis (2009) – R. Crumb – If you don’t get comics, you don’t get comics. If you do get comics, then you know that Crumb drawing an adaptation of the first book of the Bible is All That. After all, he is, to quote Robert Hughes, “The Brueghel of the second half of the 20th century,” or somesuch.

Honorable Mention

A Drifting Life – Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E. – Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen

Exit Wounds – Rutu Modan

Unstable Molecules – James Sturm, Guy Davis

Little Nothings – Lewis Trondheim

Delphine – Richard Sala

Omega: The Unknown – Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple

Fin Fang 4 – Roger Langridge, Scott Gray

Let Us Be Perfectly Clear – Paul Hornschemeier

The Muppet Show – Roger Langridge

The Perry Bible Fellowship – Nicholas Gourewitch

Promethea – Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III (eh…)

Planetary – Warren Ellis, John Cassaday

Kramer’s Ergot #7 – Everybody

Epileptic – David B.

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

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