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Monday, November 24, 2003

 
The ADD Blog's Best of 2003

For the past few years I’ve been writing about comic books, first on one of those do-it-yourself GeoCities pages (gah!), then for Silver Bullet Comics, then for three years at Comic Book Galaxy. Each year I took 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 contains numerous flaws that prevent me from considering it as any sort of timeless classic. Thompson’s fascination with his first love is a bit trite and simplistic, and some themes, such as childhood sexual abuse, seem like narrative dead ends rather than fully explored story elements.

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. 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.

Who Cares What You Think?


Well, I do, of course. Put together your Best of 2003 list together and e-mail it to me and I’ll post ‘em here.

And remember, if you enjoy the ADD Blog, your support is always appreciated and helps keep the blog available and free for readers.

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