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The Comic Book Galaxy Best of 2005 by Christopher Allen and Alan David Doane
ADD: Every year since the end of 2000, I have opined about what I thought were the highlights of the year in comics. While neither Chris nor myself has the time to really do a comprehensive overview of the year just ending, we did want to make sure that our thoughts on the most noteworthy graphic novels, collections and comics of the year were recorded for posterity. So as long as you know that this probably won't be as ambitious as previous years, let's dive into to the 2005 pile.
CA: Whereas I really am not that into Best Of Lists (ironic given that by the time this is posted, it will be announced I'm an Eisner judge), partly because I often tend to miss at least a couple of great books every year, and partly because I don't like to single anyone out over others.
...But what the hell. Let's do it.
ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL OF THE YEAR
ADD: No other work in this category this year even comes close to Top Ten: The Forty-Niners (America's Best Comics). Alan Moore and Gene Ha closed out the Top Ten saga by going back to its roots, with a profoundly human and deeply moving story of love and treachery in 1949 Neopolis. The opening image, with a full-page shot of the city under construction, hearkened back to the first time we saw this amazing city in Top Ten #1, and was the only image in comics this year that literally brought a tear to my eye. Moore and Ha (and Xander Cannon, and the rest of the creators involved with the series in its various incarnations) really created a complete and complex world with untold storytelling potential, and created some masterful tales along the way. This was one of the best of them.
CA: No argument here. And not to diminish Moore's and Ha's work in any way, but with no brand-new graphic novels from the likes of Gilbert Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, etc., and a rather lighthearted effort from Seth in Wimbledon Green, you gotta give it to The Forty-Niners. I didn't get moist like Alan did, but I did find it to be a very tight, humane graphic novel, with Ha really one of Moore's best collaborators, investing the work with as much joy and abundant ideas as Moore. And forget Top Ten continuity (though that adds another layer of enjoyment): if you can wrap yourself around the theme of people standing up for ideals and compassion, you'll like this.
COLLECTION OF THE YEAR
ADD: Despite having followed the single issues almost from the beginning, the mammoth Black Hole (Pantheon Books) hardcover really brought this work into sharper focus for me. As an irregular series of funnybooks, Black Hole was creepy and evocative, but as a single reading experience, Charles Burns manages to perfectly capture the existential horror of adolescence and recontextualize it through the device of an imaginary illness that feels as real as any other modern-day horror. The collected edition is a stunning achievement that should be read by anyone with an interest in the power of comics storytelling.
CA: And something I respected about the book, aside from the obsessive mastery Burns has over his brush, is just how simple the story is. It's really about adolescence and how everyone experiencing it is banded together in creepiness as these horrible, exciting changes are occurring to their bodies.
I also have to mention Yoshihiro Tatsumi's The Push Man and Other Stories, which brings Tatsumi's disturbing tales of alienation to a new audience to discover. That book was right up my alley, and I can't wait for the next volume.
ADD: I'll completely agree with that sentiment. From the design to the content and packaging, The Push Man was one of the most impressive releases of the year. If we could get one volume in the series every month, I'd be thrilled.
CA: There's also Absolute Watchmen, which, despite Alan Moore's lack of involvement, is the best way to experience the book. And the release of the F.F. movie prompted the release of a number of related books, the best among them Fantastic Four Omnibus, which collections the first thirty issues and first annual of the Lee/Kirby run in a beautiful, oversized format, and Maximum F.F., which reprints the first issue as one meticulously enlarged panel per page, broken up at a couple points by interesting essays by novelist and F.F. fan Walter Mosley and longtime comics writer and Kirby authority Mark Evanier.
Last, but not least, I'm really happy to finally have Mike Baron's and Steve Rude's seminal Nexus to begin to be collected in Dark Horse's lovely Nexus Archives.
COMIC STRIP COLLECTION OF THE YEAR
CA: The success of Fantagraphics' The Complete Peanuts has led to other ambitious reprint projects, with Drawn and Quarterly getting into the act with their own Walt and Skeezix, a terrific book that's usually funny but also surprisingly moving. Fantagraphics themselves continue with Peanuts and collected the first five Krazy and Ignatz volumes into a pricey (but cheaper than individual volumes) hardcover edition covering the years 1925-1934. They also began reprinting Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace, which is also a hoot, and with a sharpness and beauty to Ketcham's line I never saw before. My vote, if I had to pick a "Best," is for Frank King's Walt & Skeezix.
ADD: Boy, this is a tough category to call. I guess I would split my vote three ways between Peanuts, Dennis and Walt & Skeezix, so Frank King takes this category with something like 65 percent of the vote. The publication at last of some of these key Gasoline Alley strips really does justify all the praise that has been heaped upon them for years by folks like Chris Ware. I do have to thank Fantagraphics for continuing to make my son's life a little bit brighter every few months with a new Peanuts volume, though.
ALL-AGES BOOK OF THE YEAR
CA: Though it didn't receive a ton of attention, Jordan Crane's The Clouds Above -- his first work for Fantagraphics -- is an imaginative, beautifully drawn and colored hardcover graphic novel about a boy, his cat, and an adventure in the sky that will thrill even while it's appropriate for bedtime reading to children. The first edition has sold out, but expect it to be reprinted by February.
ADD: This was really a surprise, and a welcome addition to the amazingly deep Fantagraphics catalog of graphic novels. Who would have thought a few years ago that the parent company of Eros Comix would also consistently produce such great children's literature?
CA: You're being whimsical, but I really have a theory about that. I think most people have these different sides to them, and to some extent, pornography and fetishistic sex have real childish origins to them, real retarded aspects of sexuality, and so it's no wonder those filthmongers at Eros (kidding) would want to redeem themselves by putting something pure out there for the kiddies.
Maybe this wasn't the best place to introduce this theory. Ah, well. On we go!
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR
ADD: One of the most impressive and sprawling career retrospectives of 2005 was The R. Crumb Handbook (MQP), the perfect introduction to Crumb for curious newcomers and a wonderful look back for longtime readers. Truly essential reading in a delightfully compact and yet surprisingly complete little package, with a bonus music CD included for free.
CA: It's an excellent overview that really captures the best of Crumb's work, even covering some non-comics work such as his paintings, sketchbooks and his experiences with Hollywood and the fine art world. As I was talking about above (not this again!), we've all got these different sides, and here readers can see the deviant, perverted Crumb as well as the curmudgeon, social critic, serious artiste, musicologist, loving husband and doting father.
SUPERHERO COMIC OF THE YEAR
ADD: Not that there was any competition to speak of, but All Star Superman (DC Comics) finally showed up toward the end of the year and blew away every other title from Marvel and DC combined. In a year that saw Sleeper and Human Target stupidly cancelled before their time, it's heartening to see that Morrison and Quitely are still willing and able to deliver on the promise of a genre that was otherwise abandoned to cynicism, misogny and mediocrity virtually across the board in 2005.
CA: Were those series even in 2005? Seems like a long time ago. I really haven't read any other superhero series this year that knocked me out, unless we want to count the finite series of Morrison's Seven Soldiers saga. Some of the first issues of those have been even better than All Star Superman, but Morrison and Quitely still do some very good work on that first issue.
MAGAZINE OF THE YEAR
ADD: As much as The Comics Journal (Fantagraphics) has been the most important, significant and entertaining magazine covering comics since it first appeared nearly three decades ago, in 2005 under the stewardship of Gary Groth and Dirk Deppey, it flowered into a new relevance and a new form that demands attention and rewards study. Everything great about the magazine has been maintained, and Deppey has brought in new voices (mine and Chris's occasionally among them, full disclosure, etc., etc.) that better reflect the current and future thinking on an artform that, there's every reason to believe, is really just beginning the long journey to maturity.
CA: I could be wrong, but I would give more credit to Deppey, as Groth's written contributions are often rote, and there are still disturbing holdovers from when the book was more his baby, like the ridiculous jargonazi Ken Smith. The increased budget for glossy inserts and choice reprints is a great addition, but the magazine is still very slow to react to new books, when there's no reason they couldn't have quality reviews of much-anticipated works out in issues timed to the books' releases. Comics are still a pretty small medium of entertainment and shouldn't be that hard to cover; case in point: there's only one regular-published magazine about comics that's worth a damn.
ONGOING TITLE OF THE YEAR
ADD: No other regular title had me as eagerly waiting for the next issue like Kevin Huizenga's Or Else (D&Q). Huizenga's stories are at once breezy and profound, a canny evocation of what it is to be alive and aware. Just as today's longtime artcomix readers look back fondly on the glory days of regular releases of Eightball, Hate and Acme Novelty Library, so too, someday, will we look back and realize how lucky we were to have Or Else coming our way on a regular basis, reminding us how good comics can be with just a little imagination, a little talent, and a little curiosity about where the boundaries lie and how permeable they are.
CA: I just recently started reading this, and before it John Porcellino's King-Cat Comics & Stories, and couldn't really say which I like better. And I really don't have to, do I? It's no different for me in discovering people like Eggers and the McSweeneys guys -- I like bright people with purpose, who take delight in sharing their worlds, ideas and a few laughs with you, without trying to beat you into submission with it. Inviting and delighting.
DEBUT OF THE YEAR
ADD: Zack Soto's The Secret Voice (AdHouse Books) arrived as a dense one-man anthology full of mystery and wonder, and promised more of the same on a regular basis. That's something you don't see much in funnybooks anymore, and The Secret Voice is a welcome new presence in comics.
CA: It's funny; I remember the first time I reviewed anything of Soto's was a short piece in the Project: Superior anthology, and while I'm sure I wouldn't have been as hard on it had I seen The Secret Voice first, that doesn't mean the story was any good. But he kept working at it, and is now creating this immensely entertaining, commanding yet still open and naive, series that reminds one just how much fun a good floppy can be. On the horizon, the only ongoing series that has me expecting anything as good as Secret Voice, Or Else or King-Cat is the new series from Jordan Crane for Fantagraphics.
TRADE PAPERBACK OF THE YEAR
ADD: As much as I loved Street Angel (Slave Labor Graphics) in single issues, Street Angel Volume One was a real delight, collecting all five issues, various short stories, pin-ups and supplemental pieces. Street Angel had a grand moment in the sun as one of the most exciting and unusual comics on the stands, and if that moment is over -- as it appears to be, at least for the moment -- at least we have this volume as a thick, rewarding souvenir of one of the better comics of the past decade.
CA: I guess to some people, CBG's activism for the series has become kind of a joke, or an irritant, but unfortunately, there really weren't a lot of books to compete with it, or even join it on the dais, in the past year, so what can you do? Jim Rugg will almost certainly produce more good comics in the future, but there really was something special here, the initial rush of energy and watch-me-top-this bravado that will be hard to recapture.
BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR
CA: And for quite a different kind of book, we shouldn't overlook Ho Che Anderson's passionate, mercurial graphic biography, King, about the slain civil rights leader. A really ambitious project that didn't quite pull all the threads together, but enough to be a really significant work in comics.
ADD: Reading the entire novel in collected form definitely gave me the sense that Anderson's reach exceeded his grasp, but King represents exactly the sort of bold ambition that comics should aspire to. It's inevitable that not every work will reach the pinnacle that its creator hopes for, but it's gratifying and exciting to see gifted creators try. I also want to mention Rick Geary's The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (NBM), which managed to be wickedly entertaining and enlightening at the same time. An epic tale by a master storyteller.
BOOK TO WATCH IN 2006
ADD: 2005 was going to be the year of Bluesman, really it was -- except that its initial publisher went out of business after publishing the first volume. NBM has taken the baton, though, and the title should be available in comics shops and elsewhere within the next few weeks. Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo's work deserve the wider awareness NBM will no doubt bring to this great work about travelling blues musicians who encounter darkness and violence in Depression-era America. And as much as I enjoyed Kevin Huizenga's Or Else in 2005, it behooves me to mention that his Ignatz-format (gorgeous oversized comics from Fantagraphics) Ganges comic will debut in the months ahead, as well.
CA: And so another year is over for comics. I'm not really sure what to make of it yet, and I'll probably just leave that for people smarter than me. Mainly, for me it was about discovering some great talents--new ones and ones I knew of but had previously ignored or overlooked. I certainly indulged my nostalgic side (I've actually been reading Essential Werewolf By Night the past month, though it really is pretty dreadful), but the lack of a lot of excitement from Marvel or DC has made me look outward more than ever before, and it's really been rewarding. Here's to 2006 being an even better year, for the comics industry, and the comics medium.
Christopher Allen's comics criticism has appeared in The Comics Journal, and at websites such as Movie Poop Shoot and others. He is the managing editor of Comic Book Galaxy and this year was chosen as an Eisner Awards judge. Alan David Doane has been a broadcast journalist for the past 20 years, and has contributed comics criticism to The Comics Journal, as well as Silver Bullet Comics and other websites. He is the Executive Editor of Comic Book Galaxy.