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Comic Book Galaxy's editorial staff, gradually and without malice, slowly disappeared over the course of the year, and by the end of the year, chaos had come to the site. I took it down for a couple of weeks, but as I have time, I have been trying to work on moving it forward. I apologize to anyone who's been disappointed by the slowness of the process, or the results so far, but the whole world changed this year, and the changes here seem minor indeed when put up against some of the more devastating changes in status quo both in the U.S. and all over the world.
Even the final days of the year were a study in contrasts for me personally. At work, I got a promotion after only four months on the job, and my sister-in-law delivered her new daughter on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. The Saturday before New Year's, I got food poisoning and was violently ill for 24 hours. Happy goddamned New Year.
With that as preamble, let us now turn to what The Galaxy was designed for...looking at comic books. Specifically, the best and worst of what was released in the previous 12 months. Keep in mind this is a subjective list, based solely on what I read over the last year. In other words, Your Mileage May Vary.
Best of 2001
Comic of the Year: Hey, Wait...by Jason (Published by Fantagraphics)
In my joint review (with Rob Vollmar) of this astonishing graphic novel, I said "There's no melodrama at all, but quite a bit of drama. And humour. And passion, and pathos, and tragedy, and pain. In three decades of reading comics, I think I can safely say that this is the first one to really, simply and accurately depict what it is like to live a life." Jason (no last name) takes on the task of depicting a life and flawlessly and with great heart and humanity transcribes it into comics form. If you are a fan of the movie American Beauty, you remember the bittersweet gratitude it left you with for the sole fact that you were alive as the film ended. Jason pulls off much the same mood here, with a story that is touching, personal, powerful, and even months later, chilling in its implications. You may wonder why it's called "Hey, Wait..." but once you immerse yourself in this great work of art, you will never, ever forget the meaning of those two words.
James Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries Volume One (Top Shelf)
Alt/indy fave and rock superstar James Kochalka continued to share his inner life with his fans in 2001, with the publication of the first volume of his Sketchbook Diaries. Here is a cartoonist working in a new form so compelling, that he has begun to spawn imitators. Jay's Days creator Jason Marcy has begun to keep his own daily cartoon diary, inspired by Kochalka's compelling, irresistible work.
The good news is that in 2002, we'll get Sketchbook Diaries Volume Two from Kochalka and his outstanding publisher, Top Shelf. A daily cartoon diary by any competent cartoonist would at the very least be an interesting experiment, but by now readers of this site know I am utterly fascinated and delighted by not only Kochalka's view of the world, but by the unique and visionary style he brings to his statement of it. To read the work of James Kochalka is to view the world through his eyes. By turns neurotic, insightful, sarcastic and brilliant, James Kochalka is as perfect an artist as the comics artform has yet created. As I write these words, you can pre-order James Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries Volume Two from the new Previews catalog. What are you waiting for? While you're at it, hunt down his Don't Trust Whitey CD, one of the most delightful aural experiences I had in 2001.
Promethea/Tom Strong/Top Ten (ABC)
Any best-of list could easily be dominated by Alan Moore's transcendent America's Best Comics line, but in the interests of fairness and diversity, I am counting these titles as one entry. Each represents fascinating and diverse aspects of a single, brilliant mind: Alan Moore.
Choosing collaborators perfectly suited to his material, Moore has developed and maintained (despite DC's occasional attempts at editorial fuckery) a line of comics of breathtaking depth and quality. While Tomorrow Stories is left off this list due to its hit-or-miss nature (a hard problem to overcome with an anthology), the three titles I chose to include are each among the best comics ever published, each for its own unique reason.
Tom Strong takes a retro-pastiche premise and twists and turns it until it becomes something so grounded in comics history that it comes back all the way around to seeming utterly fresh and new. Moore is assisted mightily in that effort by artist Chris Sprouse, whose clean lines and elegant design are the very definition of fresh and clear. Sprouse is one of the best visual storytellers working today, and each issue of this title provides a new chapter in the universe of Tom Strong, a familiar old friend that is as comforting as he is powerful.
Top Ten went on hiatus after a standout issue #12 this year. In 12 issues of this luminiscent title, Alan Moore and his creative partners (including Gene Ha and Zander Cannon) created a complex and altogether convincing reality in which superheroes act as a police force, enfoircing the law in a city filled with other superpowered beings. Moore created individual characters that had my full and complete attention, with subtle shadings and moments that promise to repay many, many multiple re-readings. This is not a book to be casually read and dismissed as one plows through the new comics stack. Top Ten is an intricate comic designed by an intricate mind, working with delight and joy to deliver an engaging and rewarding reading experience.
Which brings us to Promethea, the book that has probably challenged (and defeated) more online reviewers than any other this year, as Alan Moore took his seeming Wonder Woman tribute and evolved it into a serious, mind-expanding and visually stunning exploration of the Kabbalah. While I will admit that he took me by surprise as much as anyone, it was as clear as #10, "The Sex Issue," that Moore had more on his mind with this comic than simple (or even complex) entertainment. Moore is one of the great thinkers and teachers in human history, although given his chosen media (he is also creating CDs that have spoken-word performances on these same themes) the vast majority of humanity may never know about it. But that's the core meaning of occult...these lessons, being taught in comics, are hidden from the public at large. And a lot of readers (and the aforementioned online reviewers of limited intellect and attention span) have dismissed this title to their own detriment and embarrassment. I've long said that Moore is one of the few comics creators whose work, when I fail to understand it, does not make me feel the creator failed. When I fail to understand or appreciate Moore's work, especially in Promethea or other great works like The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders, I am self-aware enough to understand that it's probably me that has failed to uphold the creator-reader contract, and that I need to go back and read it again. Because time and time again, re-reading these works has shown me that Moore is laying it all out, and that it's my mind that needs to stretch to accomodate the valuable lessons he is generous enough to share with us. Here in Promethea, he is telling a vast, complex tale that will change how you look at life, the universe and everything. You just have to give it the time and attention it demands, and that Moore has more than earned in his two decades in comics.
Eightball #22 (Fantagraphics)
Leave it to Dan Clowes to invalidate just about everyone's "Best of 2001" list by releasing the best single issue of Eightball ever, just days before the clock ran out on 2001. Luckily for me, I am late getting this column together.
Eightball #22 features "29 stories in full color," really all one story parsed out in 29 different styles and modes. The saga of life in the small town of Ice Haven is told as hard-boiled detective fiction, charming Sunday funnies-like kids comics, and pieces reminiscent of Clowes's masterwork David Boring graphic novel.
With the Ghost World film out in 2001, you would have thought Clowes would relax and take a break, but this issue represents a landmark for him, as he puts to use all the lessons he's learned over his career, to create an issue that both recalls all that has gone before and reveals previously unsuspected layers to his already considerable talents.
The world is always a heartbreaking, surreal place when seen through Dan Clowes's insightful perceptions, and it is one of the triumphs of this issue that no matter what genre he is working in (or lampooning), the ennui and despair shine through, always paradoxically charged with hope. See, for example, the scene of an entire town raising their voices together as one near the end of the issue, quickly contrasted with the hopeless love of Charles for his older step-sister, depicted in an almost Family Circus-like style.
Clowes's work has always been about contrasts between light and dark, humour and misery, jocularity and rage. All of those and more are present in this issue, with a total change of mood casting you into a new corner of the artist's mind every few pages. The disorienting nature of the constant, shifting tone is the perfect metaphor for the year that was 2001, and Eightball #22 represents both a wonderful introduction to, and summation of, the work of Dan Clowes.
Mail Order Bride (Fantagraphics)
Not much was said in the online comics community in 2001 about one of the best graphic novels ever. That comes as no surprise, when you break down the book's content. It includes such alien ideas as telling the story from a woman's perspective and actually looking at the character and behaviour of a pretty typical comic book store owner who she ends up marrying. As such, this is a tale by turns tragic and hilarious, resisting expectations at every turn, and leaving the reader with much to think about at the conclusion of the story. To quote my review, "From beginning to end, Mail Order Bride shocks, delights, and surprises, as it lets readers roam freely in the heart, mind, spirit and soul of a fully-drawn young woman."
Don't let that scare you. Mail Order Bride was one of the most satisfying and thoughtful works of 2001, and it belongs on your bookshelf.
I recently expounded at some length of my love for this title, currently my favourite comic book that still features characters in capes. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming are working together to create from whole cloth a new comics universe, much like Kurt Busiek did with Astro City or Alan Moore did in Top Ten. Among the many differences, though, are Bendis's unique gift for dialogue, Oeming's delightful and deceptively simple design and linework, and the fact that I am most grateful for, Powers comes out regularly. This ongoing series about people with powers and the very human cops that investigate them was one of the joys of 2001, and is always at the top of my reading stack.
Barry Windsor-Smith's Opus 2 (Fantagraphics)
No, it's not a comic book in the strictest sense of the word. Not even in the loosest sense of the word. But in a year where Marvel absolutely pissed away a great opportunity to work once again with Windsor-Smith, by hooking him up to the vile, diseased writing of Frank Tieri, this gorgeous hardcover coffee-table style art book served to remind readers of why Windsor-Smith is regarded as one of the greats. The fact is, BWS is one of the best living comics artists, and it's one of the great shames and embarrassments of the industry that he hasn't been given a regular outlet for his comics work. The hardcover collections of his Storyteller work coming in 2002 from Fantagraphics are a step in the right direction...certainly moreso than giving him illiterate Frank Tieri scripts to illustrate...but there should be much more.
Here's where I get angry.
The DC Universe titles are owned and editorially guided by one of the largest corporations in the world, AOL/Time-Warner. While Marvel has been chided for jokingly referring to DC as "AOL Comics," the fact of the matter is, the company has made some very stupid decisions in the past couple of years. The kind of stupid decisions made by companies more concerned about the short-term bottom line than the goodwill and long-term profits generated by the propagation of great work by gifted creators. They've taken good books, sometimes even good books that sell well, and screwed with the creators and the work and generally made themselves look like fools. I'm thinking of Deadenders. I'm thinking of The Authority. I'm thinking of Paul Levitz and his desire to eradicate and pulp anything he thinks will displease his corporate masters. I'm thinking of the cancellation of Orion.
I'm sure I'm much angrier about this turn of events than even Walter Simonson, the creative force behind the last DCU title on my pull list. Walt is a wonderfully decent man and no doubt is grateful DC hung on as long as it did in the face of reader disinterest in this title. Of course, the fact is, DC did virtually nothing to get the word out about what an exciting departure this was from John Byrne's torpid attempt at resurrecting Jack Kirby's characters. DC did nothing to promote the best superhero book in its stable.
I don't care about sales. I care about the fact that this was a great book by one of the best storytellers alive, and DC blew it. They let it flounder and they let Walt slip away. I have no idea what he'll do next, but wherever he goes, whatever he does, I'll be there to support it, and him. The money I'm not spending on Orion in 2002 won't go to fucking Batgirl, believe me.
Simonson's art has blown my mind and excited my senses for nearly as long as I've been alive (sorry, Walt). If I was in power at a corporation with the resources of AOL/Time-Warner, I would not give a shit how much money the book was losing, as long as I could keep a gifted creator like Walter Simonson in my roster. I'd be proud to have him, and I would promote the hell out of his great work. DC did none of that, and barely promoted what was their most exciting, visually stunning title. In a year of monumentally stupid moments on the part of DC, cancelling Orion was way near the top of the list. A stupid company run by stupid people making stupid decisions. Despite this, Walt has continued to provide the same level of excellence in his final issues as he has from the very beginning. I won't miss the DC Universe when this title is gone, but I will sure miss Orion every month.
Hellboy: Conquerer Worm #1-4 (Dark Horse)
On the short list of people who I would gladly lop off a toe to be able to draw like (a small toe, the smallest, actually -- but still!), you would find Mike Mignola pretty close to the top, along with Walt Simonson, Gil Kane, and of course, Jack Kirby. When I am on the air at the radio station, I often draw to pass the time during the 30 or 60 second breaks that come between when I have to read the weather or the news...and it's one of the great frustrations of my life that I have never really been able to draw. I enjoy my little sketching while I'm doing it, but when the red light comes on and it's time to talk, man, the sketch usually goes right in the trash.
I love looking at Mike Mignola's art. I'm not as obsessed with statuary and nazis as he is, so I am not well and truly obsessed with his Hellboy work, but when he draws anything, I am there. I love looking at his artwork. The simplicity of his design and the weight of his line depict the world in a way that looks nothing like it is, and yet speaks volumes about the way in which the artist sees it. Just beautiful.
Despite having all the individual issues, this year I also spent $50.00 to buy the two Planetary hardcovers. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday are crafting enduring, exciting comics for the ages, and they are served extremely well by the hardcover format (as is Alan Moore's ABC line, by the way). Planetary had a hard time staying on schedule this year, and the months between issues were long ones indeed. I hope we'll see this title more regularly in 2002, because Elijah and Jakita and the Drummer and the mystery that surrounds their organization is absolutely fascinating, and Cassaday's artwork has slowly grown on me to the point that I believe he is one of the top four or five comics artists working today. If you've never tried this series, I'll warn you now it's best appreciated when you read it in large chunks, so the pieces of the mystery better reveal themselves. Buy the trade paperback collections, or even better the hardcover collections if you can find them. I guarantee you, you will not regret it.
That's my list of the best comics I read in 2001. I had originally intended to do a "Worst of," list too, but who has the energy for that? Besides, you all know Frank Tieri can't write and DC fucked up The Authority anyway. Have a wonderful, prosperous and healthy 2002, and hopefully a year from now we'll do this again.