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The Best of 2003

For the past few years I’ve been writing about comic books, I've taken the opportunity to reflect back on the releases of the previous 12 months, and this year it seems to me provided perhaps the strongest evidence yet that the artform of comics is alive and thriving, even if the floppy-addicted industry is sputtering blood at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Don’t worry, guys, all that cheap newsprint will soak up the blood quite nicely.

Floppy, monthly comics were certainly a wasteland in 2003, but that’s status quo. The best titles DC and Marvel had to offer on a regular basis represented just a fraction of their output, and of those, Catwoman underwent unwelcome artistic changes, Sleeper is slated to come to an unwelcome end (for now), and The Ultimates continued to appear sporadically and with a disheartening lack of focus in its most recent issues (although scheduled to be relaunched soon and supposedly closer to on-schedule – we’ll see).

It comes as no surprise to me, then, to see that the comics I most enjoyed during the year, and the ones I believe will be remembered long after 2003 is a memory, were in the category of graphic novels. 2003 was the year that the public accustomed itself to the term, even if it failed to appreciate its most subtle alleged nuances.

Graphic Novel of the Year

As I write this, Mother, Come Home hasn’t even been released yet by Dark Horse, but the graphic novel’s serialization came to a finish in the pages of Paul Hornschemeier’s sublime Forlorn Funnies, certainly the best regularly-published floppy comic book of recent years. Mother, Come Home came as a surprise after the experimental first issue, a three-part graphic novel reaching deep into the depths of despair and childhood regret as Hornschemeier crafted a possibly-autobiographical tale of a young boy who loses his mother and father, although in two very different ways.

The structure of the story was more formal than is usual for Hornschemeier, leading me to think he set himself the goal of conveying this particular story with as much direct impact on the reader as possible. He succeeded wildly, delivering surprise and a palpable sense of loss in the knockout final chapter.

I’ve been shouting “Hornschemeier!” from the rooftops of the online comics community for as long as I’ve known about his work, and the growth and willingness to explore his own abilities continues to surprise and delight me. The brilliant Mother, Come Home is the first longform evidence that his career is one well worth watching.

Collection of the Year

The first real exposure I had to the work of Jim Woodring was in this year’s extraordinary hardcover dubbed The Frank Book. Collecting virtually every story and illustration about this odd little animation-style character (is it a cat? What the hell is it?), The Frank Book is a gorgeous and gigantic slab of strangeness. Woodring’s storytelling seems shipped in from another galaxy, while his visual sense is nothing less than mind-altering. Your eyes are comfortable with his wildly vivid and paradoxically colour palette, while the narrative is both freakishly bizarre and altogether delightful.

Woodring has said that his art is informed by hallucinations he has experienced all his life, and The Frank Book does nothing to dispel that claim. What it does is lay out the map of his unique consciousness, making both creator and reader all the richer for the experience.

Biggest Graphic Novel of the Year

Craig Thompson’s Blankets was a huge event and a real accomplishment, 600 or so pages of autobiographical cartooning presented as an original graphic novel. It was a big deal for publisher Top Shelf Productions, and represented a real breakthrough for the industry.

Unfortunately, some distance from the event has given me some perspective that has tempered my initial assessment. While I think Blankets is overall a worthwhile work, it is not a timeless classic. Thompson’s fascination with his first love is convincingly depicted but says nothing new or unusual about human relationships, and some themes, such as childhood sexual abuse, seem like narrative dead ends rather than fully explored story elements. I think Thompson still has an even better piece of autobio within his grasp -- Blankets is something he should be proud of, but it's the very beginning of an interesting comics career, not a capstone.

In the end I think Blankets is mostly notable for the impact it had, both in sales and industry awareness, and in the lower-back pain of readers everywhere.

Art Book of the Year

The quiet entry of the Acme Novelty Library Datebook into the cultural consciousness came in large part due to the common misconception that it would actually be a “datebook.” Rather, Chris Ware released a comprehensive and visually stunning collection of sketchbook pages. Perhaps it was modesty that prevented the artist or publishers from promoting this for what it was, but the Acme Novelty Library Datebook is one of the most revealing and intensive comics-related art books ever to be released, and most assuredly one of the most important releases ever.

You don’t have to be a Chris Ware fan to enjoy seeing his development as an artist or appreciate the meticulous design of the book, a true art object in its own right. You don’t have to be a Chris Ware fan to be fascinated by how his obsessions developed and transformed over time as he grew into one of the most important cartoonists ever. You don’t have to know a single, goddamned thing about the man. But if you pick up this book, you’ll be mesmerized by what it contains and reveals, and in the end, you will respect and admire his work, and you will want more.

And Consequently...

The dramatic impact of the arrival of the Datebook shouldn’t be allowed to diminish the year’s other incredible Chris Ware offering. Quimby the Mouse delivered a powerful assortment of cartoons demonstrating Ware’s astonishing range. These early strips focus on a cartoon mouse whose real concerns hew closely to Ware’s other characters, but the tiny multitude of panels and frenetic activity defy easy absorption. The volume was available in both hardcover and softcover format, but the hardcover is the better value and demands a place in your collection.

Best Humanistic Depiction of Depravity

Dave Cooper’s Ripple is the harrowing story of an artist’s obsession with his grotesque muse; the great accomplishment of the work is how Cooper manages, quite deftly, to get the reader fully involved in this obsession. It’s the most convincing depiction of strange attraction I’ve ever seen.

Travelogue of the Year

I went to Canada this year courtesy of Paul Has A Summer Job. Spent many weeks at camp, learning about nature and life and decency and regret. Michel Rabagliati’s tale was a heartfelt look back at innocence and growing up.

Anti-Travelogue of the Year

You probably won’t want to set sail anytime soon after reading The Speed Abater, the story of a sailor who has no idea what he’s getting himself in to. Christophe Blain used his personal experience to craft a funny, claustrophobic tale of human fallacy.

In A League of Their Own

This was a good year for fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with both the original mini-series being reconfigured in the mammoth LOEG: The Absolute Edition and a standard-sized release of LOEG: Volume Two (discussed below). Both are twisted adventure tales that will entertain no matter how many times you re-read them. My favourite line from Volume Two? Hyde’s chilling, subtle “I saw to his end,” in regard to the death of a key character. Horrific and hilarious.

Speaking of Hyde

Lorenzo Mattotti’s surreal, fevered artwork was perfect for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a new interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. This adaptation was note-perfect and a great example of how this sort of thing should be done.

Saga of the Year

Gilbert Hernandez proved once and for all that he is among the very few living masters of comics art with the massive hardcover Palomar. Resequenced and recontextualized, Palomar as a single work is a revelation after two decades of reading these stories separated from their greater context. Brilliant, life-affirming storytelling – if you’re looking for the Citizen Kane of comics, here’s a contender for the title.

Black and White and Jeffrey Brown All Over

Brown’s release of two great graphic novels this year – Clumsy and Unlikely – quickly established him as the primitive autobio guy to watch. His uncorrected, raw cartooning laid his soul bare and left readers eager for more revelations.

Truly Mad Ideas

With all the claims of “mad ideas” by glorified superhero writers, it’s nice to see someone truly explore madness. Chester Brown has the chops to do it, too, as he has personal experience with mental illness – his mother was diagnosed a schizophrenic, and in recent issues of Cerebus, his answers to questions from Dave Sim don’t paint him as altogether well, either. No matter, his huge hardcover Louis Riel explores the passion and madness of the titular character, a key figure in Canadian history who is fascinating even if you’ve never heard of him before cracking open this volume. Drawn and Quarterly turns out their usual divine production work, making Louis Riel one of the most beautiful books-as-art-object released this year.

Floppies of the Year -- 2003 was an interesting year in comics linguistics. It was the year that the general public -- the part that thinks about comics, anyway -- decided that they're all graphic novels, and the ever-dwindling mass of nerds who populate and support the nation's comics shops were torn between calling 32-page comics (and their stapled brethren) "floppies" or "pamphlets." Writer Steven Grant suggested "Pamfs," but I submit to you that that phrase is just never going to catch on. Sorry, Steven.

In any case, while my Best of 2003 mostly focuses on graphic novels, I've decided I should also throw some love to the pamfs -- I mean, floppies that rocked my socks during the previous 12 months. So that's that with that, as Mr. Malloy would say.

Sleeper -- This "Eye of the Storm" title from DC/Wildstorm was far and away the best comic to look forward to every 30 days during 2003. Built on a foundation of paranoia, grief, misery and violence, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips injected an unrelenting sense of dread combined with a very human, grounded drama that made Sleeper absolutely addictive. Unfortunately, it appears at first glance to perhaps be more complex than it is, which may have put some potential readers off, I don't know. In any case, it's clear that this fantastic series did not receive the attention it deserved in 2003. Readers will have a chance to sample the book with this week's release of Sleeper: Out in the Cold, a trade paperback collecting the first six issues. It would be a real loss to comics if this series were allowed to disappear, so please give it a look. I guarantee you'll be as hooked as I am.

The Walking Dead -- We're only three issues in to this action/adventure series, and it's already established itself as a fun, engaging story about, well, I've tried to avoid the term as far into this sentence as possible, but, zombies. Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's story bears some basic similarities to the excellent horror movie 28 Days Later, but Kirkman is concentrating more on the human side of the equation -- what would it be like for the remaining humans if zombies walked the earth? The Walking Dead is hard to pin down -- it has elements of science fiction, horror and action/adventure, but at its core Kirkman and Moore concentrate on the humanity of their characters, and that's essential to creating stories people read, enjoy, and remember. By far one of the best books Image offered up in 2003.

Promethea -- It's the end of the world, and apparently the ABC Universe created by Alan Moore, and no one in this mind-bending series is feeling fine. Reality is twisting and bending and getting closer every issue to breaking for good -- and Moore and his gifted colleagues are delivering a true "crisis" that puts other "end of the universe" stories in comics history to shame. The past few issues of Promethea have been so good that it's truly hard to put into words -- the sense of sadness, dread and chaos mixes with the very real depression I feel at the prospect of no more Alan Moore-written ABC titles to give the stories even more gravity. Promethea is possibly Moore's greatest achievement, and in these final issues, he's rewarding his readers by going out with the very biggest bang possible.

Love and Rockets -- The late-in-the-year release of Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar hardcover brought into stark relief how lucky comics readers are to live in a time when Love and Rockets is being regularly published again. Each issue provides a generous selection of short stories and serialized tales by Gilbert, and brothers Jaime and Mario. Los Bros. Hernandez are often cited as some of the best cartoonists in comics history, and for one very good reason: They are. If you haven't been reading the latest incarnation of their storied series Love and Rockets, you're missing out on stories filled to bursting with life, love, comedy and drama. If you're an adult who likes comics, there's literally nothing more you could ask for.

Gabagool -- By now you've probably heard something about this delightful little alternative title, but chances are you haven't sampled it yet. You should. Gabagool is about a group of friends and would-be bounty hunters who live in Bronx, NY (whatever you do, don't call it The Bronx!) and live out their days in geeky pursuit of pleasure. This year saw the comic make the jump from mini to full-sized comic, and the boys travelled on a hedonistic vacation that was hilarious and delightful. If you haven't picked up an issue of Gabagool yet, make that one of your new year's resolutions.

Wildcats -- Writer Joe Casey has produced a lot of bizarre, self-congratulatory crap over the past few years -- and one exquisite, cerebral action title. Wildcats concerns how one super-powered being wants to transform the world through corporate branding, and with the help of artist Dustin Nguyen, this DC/Wildstorm title has been a joy to read. Wildcats has almost always been about deconstruction, from the moment Jim Lee and company handed the title off to Alan Moore. Since that divine occurance, the book has almost always been interesting, but it's never been better than it has under the care of Casey and Nguyen. 2004 will see a new artist on the title, and I'm apprehensive about the change, but for over a year now Casey has done a fine job making Wildcats a riveting read, and I hope that continues in the new year with a new visual style.

Dark Days -- Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith recently wrapped up their six-issue sequel to 30 Days of Night, building on that original series and creating an even more grim and surprising story. Vampires vs. humanity is the basis of the tale, and Niles, as always, approaches his story from surprising angles and with great narrative confidence. The final moment of Dark Days was dark, indeed, and a great reminder that in the world of independent comics, literally anything is possible.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume Two -- As the movie inspired by Volume One failed to ignote much interest in summer movie-goers, the true excitement was in the pages of this perverse take on War of the Worlds. The League bands together to defy martian invaders, but is torn apart by internal treachery. This worthy sequel featured two especially noteworthy moments, the lovemaking of two of the lead characters, and the horrifyingly funny demise of one team member by another, leading to my favourite line of dialogue in any comic this year. As long as I live, I will never forget how funny it was when Mr. Hyde said "I saw to his end." Alan Moore's genius will sorely be missed in 2004.

Smax -- If it seems there's a lot of Alan Moore on this list, that's because he wrote a lot of the best comics that saw the light of day this year. Smax was especially surprising, because I think most readers were expecting a lighthearted sequel-of-sorts to the sublimely wonderful Top Ten. Instead, what we got was a harrowing examination of the origin and culture of Officer Jeff Smax, along with enough dead-on mockery of fantasy stories to make any Tolkien fan blush. One of the biggest surprises of the year was just how good, and how complex, Smax turned out to be.

Planetary -- The list of disappointing Warren Ellis comics from the past couple of years is quite long. He got the idea of "Pop Comics" into his head and wouldn't let go until quarter bins were filled to bursting with subpar efforts like MEK, Tokyo Storm Warning and Reload. On the other hand, Red with artist Cully Hamner showed how good the idea could have been. But longtime Ellis readers were most excited about the return, at last, of Planetary. The series picked up without missing a beat, the highlight of the year probably being a jungle adventure that ultimately revealed itself to be an unexpected origin story full of passion and excitement.

Wanted -- The occasional excesses of writer Mark Millar ("Think this 'A' stands for France?" was the clunker line of the year) often seem to cloud the fact that he is quite accomplished at plotting superhero comics, and the early returns on Wanted seem to indicate that readers get it: Wanted is filled with action, perversity and profanity, and the stunning, dynamic art of JG Jones. It's not a quantum leap from Millar's The Ultimates, but it definitely improves on the formula and is likely to be the superhero book everyone is talking about in the next few months.

Shonen Jump -- The manga section in my local Borders has recently undergone a massive expansion, and that's not because they're losing money on it. I bought my first issue of Shonen Jump, a bargain-priced manga anthology, well, today, actually. But in a year when this jam-packed upstart comic magazine outsold the leading "mainstream" comic by a factor of five, I thought it was long past the time I should give it a look. Factor in the price differential -- at five bucks, Shonen Jump costs double what Jim Lee's excreable Batman did -- and you can be certain that 2004 will be the year manga dominates even more, as the more short-sighted comics shops continue to turn away thousands of potential customers and further seal their own fates.

Reinventing Everything -- 2003 was the year James and Amy Kochalka welcomed their new son Eli into their family, and one of the beneficial results of that was this introspective, revelatory two-issue mini-comic. I enjoyed Reinventing Everything more than just about anything else I read this year, and I strongly recommend it as one of the best examples of why James Kochalka is one of our best living cartoonists.

New X-Men -- I was onboard Grant Morrison's mutant revamp from before it began, eager and excited to see what he and Frank Quitely could do to inject some life into a franchise that has had many, many more "off" years than "on." It's my belief, in fact, that the X-Men as characters have survived this long only thanks to the enormous momentum and goodwill built up by a few years of excellent adventure comics by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin. I tired of the artistic musical chairs during Morrison's run, especially with the shoddy look of some of the Igor Kordey issues, which looked like they had been printed from loose breakdowns, never mind full pencils. After the big reveal this year that Xorn was Magneto in disguise, I was amused by Morrison's temerity and re-read his entire run. I still can't wholeheartedly endorse a run of issues that encompasses such a varying quality of artwork, but Morrison's ingenuity and planning and ability to keep it all a secret for three years is worth saluting.

Human Target -- I'm a latecomer to this Peter Milligan/Javier Pulido series, having only read the first four issues of the current series. I found the first issue pretty impenetrable and the most recent, baseball-oriented storyline doesn't much interest me, but the second and third issues, about a man who faked his death after the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, were very well done and I think I'll be sticking with the title for a few months to see how it develops.

Forlorn Funnies -- I didn't mention this in my Floppies of the Year piece because, well, I seem to hit people over the head with my Forlorn Funnies addiction every chance I get, and I had already given creator Paul Hornschemeier a nod in my other Best of 2003 piece. But in the handful of titles that I found myself eagerly awaiting during 2003, Forlorn Funnies was pretty much at the top of the list. There are only a few comics in history that so clearly point the way to the future of the artform -- Eightball, Acme Novelty Library, and Forlorn Funnies are certainly the three that immediately come to mind, and they're all pretty much equally brilliant and consistently entertaining.

Ultimate Spider-Man -- Month in and month out, I remain impressed and entertained by the never-ending roll that Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley have been on. The recent issue featuring J. Johah Jameson dealing with ethical questions was a great reminder of the humanity that Bendis injects into just about every character he writes. Bendis's Ultimate Six had some nice narrative moments as well, including a chilling moment depicting the depths of Dr. Octopus's evil. There's not many superhero books that keep my attention month in and month out, but Ultimate Spider-Man is always a fun, engaging way to spend 20 minutes.

-- Alan David Doane



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