The Best (and Worst) of 2009
The comics industry continues to experience an unprecedented enthusiasm and expansion that is both exciting and overwhelming. There's simply so much great stuff - from breakthrough mainstream books to original graphic novels to self-published minis to repackaged classics to international translations to webcomics - that it's impossible to keep up with everything anymore.
Yet I did read a ton of good comics and graphic novels (both new and old) in 2009, and I believe that my choices of reading material, at least in part, reflect conscious, if somewhat impulsive critical distinctions I made in order to decide how to allocate my limited time and money.
All this is to say that this year's list reflects ten of the very best books I read, but should be considered with all the usual caveats that come with these sorts of lists.
10. Stitches: A Memoir (published by WW Norton) - David Small's highly personal account of the artist's struggle to overcome childhood trauma and abuse was tailor made for "best of the year" lists like this one. Small's simplified art manages to convey a tremendous depth of emotion as he recreates all the painful memories of his childhood in excruciating detail. Stitches is an extremely quick read, and is told in a pretty straight forward, chronological manner, but the book feels overstated, as if Small were, in some way, romanticizing his own struggles. Parent-child relationships are vastly complex and Small’s childhood was undeniably difficult, and I do applaud him for creating a successful and happy life for himself despite his hardships (and I have no doubt creating Stitches was incredibly cathartic), but I found the presentation of the story to be emotionally lop-sided and frustratingly over-simplified. Still, it’s a great book, beautifully illustrated and deeply moving.
9. The Stuff of Legend #1-2 (published by Th3rd World Studios) - This was the surprise of the year for me. I bought the first issue on an impulse based solely on the art of Charles P. Wilson III, but was very impressed with Mike Raicht and Brian Smith’s imaginative story as well. Part Toy Story, part Alice in Wonderland, The Stuff of Legend is original and visionary in its own right. Set during 1944, it's a dark spin on a classic children's story – a boy is kidnapped by the Boogie Man, and his loyal toys form a group to go rescue him - but the world-building, largely due to Wilson III's incredibly rich, detailed artwork, is transporting. I can't wait to see where the creators go with this and I only hope they don't get pulled onto other, higher profile projects before finishing this story.
8. Waltz With Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (published by Metropolitan Books) – With all the other great memoirs released this year, this book flew under the radar a bit, but it shouldn't have. Adapted from the film of the same name, Waltz chronicles Folman’s compelling journey into his own repressed memories of the 1982 massacre in Lebanon. Through a series of interviews and recollections, Folman eventually pieces together the string of events which lead him to be present during the atrocities. The real draw, however, is Polonsky's stunning visuals. Anyone who’s read the latest Actus anthology, How to Love, knows that Polonsky is an extraordinarily gifted illustrator, but the images in this memoir, captured as still images from the animated film, are striking. Starting with photographs or film, Polonsky draws characters and objects over the scenes, then uses an incredibly vibrant palette to add color and textures atop the images. The resulting panels are as rich as Moulin Rouge stills, and as stunningly detailed as Miyazaki’s Nausicaa.
7. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (published by Pantheon Books) - Three years ago I met Josh Neufeld briefly at MoCCA and we traded minis. At the time, I was shopping around a photo-travel memoir I'd made based on a two-week trip I'd taken to Sri Lanka with my wife. When I approached Josh, he showed me a similar photo-mini (Katrina Came Calling) that he'd compiled with several months-worth of blog posts he'd written during his time spent volunteering for the Red Cross. A couple years later, when I first heard about this new project he was working on (through Smith Magazine), I wrongly assumed he was adapting his blog posts into a graphic novel. While that would have made for an interesting project, it would not have been nearly as impactful as the graphic novel that resulted. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was a crisis that dominated the headlines, but Neufeld's book takes a much more personal approach, offering six vastly diverse, first-hand accounts of the days leading up to and following the hurricane. There's a lot to love about A.D. It sheds light on the human side of the tragedy; it's personal without being preachy. It also avoids taking cheap shots at the government (not that it wouldn't be justified, but it’s like beating a dead horse at this point) and, by the way, it's incredibly beautiful.
6. Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera (published by DC Comics) - Scalped has replaced The Walking Dead as my favorite mainstream series. I have been a fan of Vertigo from the beginning, and am usually curious enough to read any new series, but I'll admit it took a while for this book to settle on me. The praise it's garnered seemed grossly exaggerated after reading the first two trades, and my inclination was to just chalk it up to the fanboy culture, which is prone to over-praise any mainstream book with a semblance of depth and characterization. But the reality is, this book just keeps getting better, and, starting with the "Dead Mothers" storyline (vol. 4), Aaron has moved past the setup phase and plunged into the deep end of his epic story. "High Lonesome," the fifth collection, featured far and away Aaron's best writing to date, and lead artist R.M. Guera has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of his panel and page compositions, as well as his overall draftsmanship since the early issues. The setting - an Indian reservation - was always at the heart of the story's appeal, but at this point, the narrative has moved beyond clichéd noir stereotypes and intelligently incorporates the heritage and harsh political realities of Native American culture in a respectful and interesting way. The lead characters, particularly Dashiell Bad Horse and Lincoln Red Crow, continue to become more rounded and interesting as the series continues. Aaron also has a knack for dialogue that's up there with Brubaker and Ellis. Even if this series peddles in human misery more than most, the tangled plot threads and fascinating characters have won me over. I'm in for the long haul.
5. Tales From Outer Suburbia (published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic) –There's something magical about the stories in this book. Reading them is like reading a Steven Millhauser collection; the language is exquisite (in Tan's case, the language is largely visual), and there's an undercurrent of mystery flowing through everything, yet it's so beautiful, one just stares in awe without questing the nature of the vision. Tan alternates text and visuals in a wholly original way, sometimes relying on prose to carry the story, other times using silent sequences of comic panels to conjure his spectacular worlds. There's no one even close to doing what Shaun Tan is doing, and this book, like The Arrival before it, is simply wonderful.
4. 3 Story: Secret History of the Giant Man (published by Dark Horse Books) - Matt Kindt is really becoming an elite creator. Super Spy was on my Top 10 list last year, and this latest effort, in many ways, is even better. In 3 Story, Kindt’s writing is sharp, wistful and full of poignant character moments and heartache, while his pages display a broad range of storytelling techniques and art styles. It’s a more focused story than Super Spy, exploring the life of a single character. Also, the wonderfully designed die-cut cover on the hardback version, which shows the Giant Man’s eye peering into an apartment, sets the table perfectly.
3. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (published by Pantheon Books) - It's been interesting following the mixed reactions this book has received after the initial flurry of overly effusive praise. On the one hand, most critics and fans seem to agree that the artwork is first rate. Mazzucchelli's compositions, storytelling flow, and formal experiments with figures, depth, colors and printing are well-documented and extraordinarily beautiful. I suspect students of the medium will look to this book for inspiration and ideas for years to come. On the other hand, the story itself has received more of a mixed reaction. Personally, I think it’s a fine story, although it deviates into more of a character study in its second half. But what I think is troubling to many people, including me, is that Asterios Polyp himself is just not a very likable character. He's distant, bland and somewhat arrogant. Where readers want him to open up, to cast off his cold, drab exterior, instead he remains frustratingly aloof. I don’ think that this, in and of itself, makes the story a failure, but it does explain why so many have found the book less than satisfying. Yet despite these flaws, the artwork alone is so masterful, it definitely merits inclusion as one of the ten best books of 2009.
2. Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation (published by the New Press; edited by Paul Buhle, adapted by Harvey Pekar) - It's a crime how overlooked this excellent anthology has been in the comics press. I did a lengthy review of the book for the Comics Journal, and in so doing, I rediscovered Terkel, whose The Good War and My American Century I had read long ago. This collection features dozens of stellar interpretations of everyday people, from migrant farm workers to jazz musicians, barbers to hookers. While not perfect (what anthology is?), its hit rate is in the 80-90% range, and many of the stories are so powerful, they'll forever change the way you view certain occupations. The book, on the whole, paints a fascinating portrait of blue collar America, and is also a study in the deep and meaningful ways that our jobs impact our identities. It's also a reminder that Terkel is a national treasure and one of America's great writers. Working is unquestionably 2009's overlooked masterpiece.
BOOK OF THE YEAR:
1. You'll Never Know: A Graphic Memoir - Book One: A Good and Decent Man (published by Fantagraphics) – I recently went back and re-read “Migrant Mother,” a short story by Carol Tyler that appeared in Twisted Sisters #1 (Kitchen Sink Press) way back in 1993 (and was also included in Late Bloomer) and one thing immediately hit me – Ms. Tyler has a been an exceptional cartoonist for a long, long time. Yet, for some reason, unlike many of her peers, it seems like Tyler never gets enough credit for her long and impressive career. Hopefully that will change with this book.
Although this is only the first volume (and it’s unclear how many more are planned), You’ll Never Know feels like Tyler’s masterpiece, the crowning achievement that she’s been building toward. It’s at once an autobiography, a family history, and a historical exploration of World War II. While Tyler’s work in that old story was solid, there’s no doubt that her skills have improved over the years. Her artwork here is much sharper, her figure work has improved, and the way she approaches page composition is something that was absent in her earlier work. And her use of watercolor in her more recent stories is stunning.
You’ll Never Know is laid out to read like a scrapbook, which means that Tyler sacrifices some of the narrative continuity for the more authentic and scattered feel of a family album. But, while this may frustrate some readers, it also gives the book an intimate feeling that other memoirs lack, almost as she made this for her father without any intention of showing it to anyone else. Hopefully it won't be too long before the next volume.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
A Mess of Everything (published by Fantagraphics) - Miss Lasko-Gross’s follow-up to Escape From Special is absolutely wonderful. This was the eleventh book on my best of list; a really excellent, funny, beautifully drawn autobiography of growing up in a very unconventional environment. Highly recommended!
Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (published by Abrams ComicsArts) – I won’t say too much here since I have a review of this book forthcoming at the Comics Journal’s website, but if you’re a fan of the Man in Black (or even if you’re not), you definitely won’t be disappointed by Reinhard Kleist's book.
The Comics Journal #300 (published by Fantagraphics) - I'm still plowing my way through this book, but so far, the interviews I've read I've mostly enjoyed. My favorite is probably the discussion between Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely on the way each uses technology in their artwork, but Sammy Harkham's discussion with Jean-Christophe Menu also offers insight into the French comics scene (it was fascinating to learn that pull quotes on books are a uniquely American phenomena).
Syncopated (published by Villard Books) – I reviewed this for TCJ here. Although technically the fourth volume of the anthology, this was the first volume published by a major book publisher (the other three were self-published). This fourth volume is also the strongest overall. Like its predecessors, Syncopated focuses on “non-fiction picto-essays” by a range of artists, and this volume includes at least three gems by Alex Holden, Sara Glidden and editor Brendan Burford, as well as strong contributions by several others.
Unwritten #1-8 (published by DC Comics) – This may shape up to be the next major Vertigo series, though it’s probably too early to call. However, Mike Carey and Peter Gross are certainly off to a great start, and the fifth issue, a standalone story, was a particularly strong effort all around.
Sleeper Car (published by Secret Acres) - New Theo Ellsworth always gets consideration for my best of the year list, but I thought this single issue of short comic stories was stronger than his last couple books. I especially liked the surreal and hilarious story, “Norman Eight’s Left Arm” which showed Ellsworth at his most playful. In a perfect world, Ellsworth would be appreciated for the genius that he is, and his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Panter, Woodring, etc. but until then, he’s alt-comic’s best kept secret.
Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (published by Fantagraphics) - This was actually far more enjoyable than it looked at first glance. Featuring an eclectic assortment of rare, long-out-of-print American superhero short stories, the highlight of the book was actually editor Greg Sadowski's mini-essays about each piece in the end notes, which shed light on the formative years of the industry. Sadowski also did a great job selecting an all-star cast of early work from luminaries including Siegel and Shuster, Simon & Kirby, Fine & Eisner, Wolverton, Cole, Hanks, etc. The reproduction of each story is top notch, with bright, vivid colors, slightly oversized pages and thick paperstock. It's the kind of book that would only appeal to the hardcore geek like me (the casual fan of literate graphic novels like Maus, Persepolis, etc. would likely be bored), but for those fans interested in the early years of the industry, it's a very well-done collection.
I Am Legion #1-6 (published by Devil’s Due) - I wanted to like this series more than I did. I think the artwork, the production quality and even the writing in the first several issues were top notch. But eventually the story lost me. Not that I didn't understand it, but that it just came back down to earth a little, retreating into familiar genre formulas and climactic battle scenes. It's still a cut above the typical horror/adventure series, and John Cassaday's artwork is always worth a look.
Reich #1-6 (published by Spark Plug Comic Books) - Inspired by my research for my Birdland essay, I purchased and read all six issues of Elijah Brubaker's ongoing biography of Wilhelm Reich. I admire what Brubaker is doing here, hitting all the highlights of Reich's life, while trying to keep perspective on the man himself, not just his crazy ideas. So far, it's working, even if Brubaker has yet to reach any of the truly controversial aspects of Reich's later work. It's also worth noting that Brubaker has a stylized and highly appealing way of drawing figures. His characters almost look like grown up Peanuts characters, and it's this charming linework that makes this series a must read. I predict, once finished and collected (which is likely years away, based on how much of Reich's life remains unexplored), that this will stand with Louis Riel (an obvious influence) as one of the great graphic biographies.
Jonah Hex #50 - I have never, in my life, bought a Jonah Hex comic before (even though my own son is named Jonah), and knew absolutely nothing about the character, but the obvious draw of Darwyn Cooke on art was enough for me to at least take a look. The fact that it arrived during a particularly light week led me to buy it, and I'm glad I did. It's a wholly accessible, self-contained story, and Cooke's artwork, which features some great inking experiments, was enjoyable. But what truly surprised me was how satisfying a story it was. Palmiotti and Gray really turned in a solid script, and it almost made me want to go back and read back issues. Almost.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (published by Abrams ComicArts) - I've seen a few negative or lukewarm reviews of this book, which I think are pretty unfair. The story is a little light, I'll admit, but Fies is a cartoonist with tremendous range. I love the way he varies his style in this book to reflect the maturity of his lead character, and his use of digital tools, from embedded photos to digital coloring and effects, is impressive. There's also a sweetness to this book that I found refreshing. So many graphic novels these days focus on human tragedy and violence. It was a pleasant change of pace to read about a boy who loved and idealized his father, even if the end result was a little sappy. Not quite a top 10 book, but far better than the criticism it’s received.
Mome (published by Fantagraphics) – Although there was no single standout piece for me like in past years, this anthology continues to impress.
Zegas (published by Act-i-vate) - My favorite webcomic of the year, though I am hardly the best person to judge since I still prefer good old paper and ink.
Low Moon (published by Fantagraphics) – I reviewed this book for the Comics Journal. I didn’t think it was Jason’s best, but it was still very, very good, and Jason’s style remains eminently appealing.
The Walking Dead (published by Image Comics) - I still enjoy Robert Kirkman's post-apocalyptic zombie serial, but this year the series has stagnated a little. The plot increasingly relies on uncharacteristic violence, strange coincidences or the arrival of unexpected characters to drive it forward, and focuses less on the psychology of the small band of survivors that made it so compelling in the beginning. I also feel like the artwork has felt more rushed this year, possible due to the monthly deadlines which the book has done well adhering to, and as a result, it relies on larger and fewer decompressed panels. I'm still invested enough to keep reading, but it’s starting to feel like your favorite show in season four or five; the things that made it so wonderful those first few seasons just aren't fresh anymore.
2009’s Biggest Disappointments:
Not surprisingly, all mainstream superhero books…
Wednesday Comics (published by DC Comics) - This series had everything going for it. The oversized dimensions, the high profile creators, the sense of excitement and anticipation. But by the third issue it was clear that despite the unique concept, it was more of the same, bland superheroics. Sure, there was some nice artwork - Sook's Kamandi and Pope's Adam Strange being the two standouts - but these single pages hardly justified the price.
Batman and Robin #1-6 (published by DC Comics) - I just don't get the big deal over this series. It's not even in the same league as All Star Superman, and instead of waiting for Frank Quitely to finish each issue, DC is making the same mistake Marvel made with Morrison's New X-Men run by rotating one artist after another, making the whole series feel rushed and inconsistent. I am looking forward to Cameron Stewart's upcoming stint on the book, but really, this is hardly Morrison's best work.
Strange Tales #1-3 (published by Marvel Comics) - I was kind of hoping for more serious takes from some of the creators here, but instead, they all took the parody and lowbrow route. It still had some highlights, including Peter Bagge's Incorrigible Hulk, which was really the lynchpin of the whole series, but the high sticker price was frustrating, especially for the ultra-thin glossy paper which made the whole thing feel like a cheap catalog.