Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Best Comics of 2010

This is the first time I’ve actually done this, so bear with me. Two Thousand and Ten seems to me to have been a very good year for comics. They are now more accepted as a legitimate means of artistic and narrative expression than ever before. Indeed, we used to dream of comics having this kind of high profile in the media and on bookshelves when I were but a lad. We’re not quite at the level of Japan or even France/Belgium yet, but we’re a good way along that road, and from what I’ve seen this year, it’s only going to get better (no, I won’t reference that godawful song1).

So without further ado, let’s look at some of the stuff that’s tickled my fancy and made me as gleeful as a little girl2 about the present and future of comics as an art form this past year. I must stress that besides the book at number one (which was my absolute runaway winner of best book of the year), this list isn’t really in any sort of order, and that my definition includes books and magazines about comics, as well as actual comics themselves. Hey, it’s my list. Get your own, if you don’t like it.

1. The Acme Novelty Library No. 20, Chris Ware, Self-published/Drawn & Quarterly, USA.

I’m an unreserved fanatic when it comes to the work of Chris Ware. I make no bones about it. For me, he’s the most influential cartoonist of the last twenty years (with the possible exception of Lewis Trondheim), and he does things with the comics form that are simply astounding. With the twentieth issue of the Acme Novelty Library, however, he knocked it out of the park and surpassed even the Olympian standards he set before. The sheer level of formal invention in the book, in terms of the cartooning, the typography and the storytelling, is mind-boggling.

The plot is simple, on it’s surface. It’s the look at the life of one man, from birth to death, a part character in a larger narrative, Rusty Brown, that Ware has been working on for a while now. But what a look. I won’t say anymore, for fear of spoiling, but if you only read one comic from 2010 (but please read others) make it this one.

A quick note on the production of this book. It’s sublime. I think that Ware is also one of the best designers working anywhere in the world today, and this proves it. A marvelously designed and produced package that fundamentally substantiates that, although digital comics are great, print is most definitely here to stay.

 

2. Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco, Jonathan Cape, UK

I suppose that technically this book came out in 2009, but at the tail-end. And besides, I bought it in 2010, so here it is.

Joe Sacco didn’t invent ‘comics journalism’, but he sure as hell redefined it. With Footnotes in Gaza, he continued that ongoing redefinition to the Nth degree. In the book, Sacco investigates a little-known ‘incident’ in an area of the world that is full of ‘incident’, the occupied territories in Palestine (or Israel, depending on your viewpoint). In 1956, the town of Rafah on the southernmost tip of the Gaza strip, was the site of a horrific encounter that saw the death of 111 Palestinian refugees, shot by Israeli forces.

After going to Gaza with the journalist Chris Hedges, Sacco finds out about the Rafah incident and decides to look into it, even while Israelis and Palestinians attacked each other in the present day. The resulting book is somewhat of a masterpiece, and commendably evenhanded - Sacco makes a point of examining events from all angles, even if they tell a completely different story. No matter where you stand on the Israeli/Palestine question, Sacco’s book is a must-read and unflinching look at a war that has torn two sets of peoples lives asunder.

Sacco’s cartooning in this book is, like his other books, adroit and accomplished. He can juggle two or more intertwining narratives effortlessly, and he goes between the events of the past and the events of the present seamlessly. I often wonder just how he puts his comics together, as they appear almost contemporaneous to the events, almost like his pages are his actual notes. It’s fascinating stuff, and an intriguing extra layer to an already enthralling book.

 

3. It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi, Fantagraphics Books, USA

This book is even older if you count the source material, but the full English translation finally came out in 2010 (although certain chapters were translated and reprinted some years before both in RAW and Drawn & Quarterly). I could have chosen from any of Fantagraphics systematic reprinting of the work of Jacques Tardi as it’s all fabulous, but It Was the War of The Trenches has a special resonance for me. I’ve long been somewhat obsessed by the events of the First World War, the War To End All Wars that sadly wasn’t, and so when I discovered Tardi’s book some years ago it was a coming together of two obsessions in a single compelling package3.

I actually read the book in the original French some years back, but the translation by Kim Thompson is topnotch, and the typeface created by the Danish cartoonist Allan Haverholm is a near-perfect recreation of Tardi’s hand-lettering, something the book would have sorely missed if the book had been lettered differently. A brutal guts-and-all look at the short life of the average French soldier in the trenches, with gritty artwork that straddles the fence between cartooning and illustration perfectly, It Was The War of the Trenches ranks up there with All Quiet on the Western Front in the ranks of WWI literature.

The package itself is very handsome and exquisitely designed by Adam Grano. It’s even better than the French version I have, and makes the book a joy to hold and read, perfectly complementing the text.

Finally, a quick anecdote. When White Death (by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard), the first ‘album’ published by Les Cartoonistes Dangereux4, came out in France in 19985, parallels were drawn between it and Tardi’s book by the French comics press. Unsurprising really, since they both were set in WWI, but fundamentally flawed. Both books were excellent, unflinching looks at the reality of war, but that’s where the comparison ended. Tardi thought so too. We heard from a third party that he wasn’t very impressed with the correlation. What he thought of the book is anybody’s guess6.

 

4. Psychiatric Tales, Darryl Cunningham, Blank Slate Books, UK

Darryl Cunningham has been working on the fringes of comics to little acclaim for many years now. An idiosyncratic cartoonist, he’s a true one-off in the world of UK comics, and I for one am ecstatic that he both stuck at it and that now, he’s finally gaining some measure of critical (and soon, we can hope, commercial) success.

Cunningham’s book is a frank, yet heartfelt examination of the realities of mental disorders, both from the point of view of a mental health professional and as a sufferer from depression. Never preachy and eminently accessible, Psychiatric Tales is that rare thing - a breakout book that is perfect for introducing someone to comics, and a treasure for those of us already well versed. It’s a frankly stunning achievement that’s full of heart and soul.

A quick note on the publisher; Blank Slate Books are one of a new breed of UK comics publishing houses, along with SelfMadeHero (about whom more later), NoBrow and Tom Humberstone’s Solipsistic Pop (again, see a bit later), who are at the vanguard of a new movement in UK independent comics. Blank Slate, run by the effervescent comics veteran Kenny Penman, have taken a euro-centric eye to publishing comics and each of their books are a delightful mix of exceptional content and stunning design and production, like the best Francophone publishers. I’m really gratified to see Blank Slate and the others emerge, and I can’t help wondering if LCD hadn’t been around ten or so years too early. Long may they continue.

 

5. Comic Art Propanganda, Frederik Strömberg, Ilex Press, UK

The first of the books that isn’t a comic, but is about comics. I’ve long been an admirer of Bild and Bubbla, the Swedish magazine on comics, and its’ editor Frederik Strömberg. Strömberg is a real expert’s expert with his encyclopaedic knowledge and talent for analysis & writing, the latter in both Swedish and English.

This, his latest book, is an in-depth study in the ways that comics have been used to convey information, often with an eye to indoctrinate. As Strömberg writes in his introduction, “[…]comics have proven their power to fascinate. And this power has often been used with the express purpose of transmitting ideas and convincing the reader of various things i.e. as tools of propaganda”.

Strömberg examines how different political and religious ideologies have used comics for their own ends, as well as social engineering, gender studies and pro- and anti-drug uses. Liberally illustrated, Strömberg manages the difficult feat of documentation without editorialization. Well, most of the time, anyway; When he discusses Jack Chick, and his particular brand of evangelism via comic books, Strömberg can’t help himself from showing the kind of incredulousness that most of us have felt when coming across these weird, and frankly repulsive little tracts.

All in all, Comic Art Propaganda is a well-crafted and informative book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of any self-respecting comics connoisseur. In many ways, it’s the spiritual heir to the long out-of-print Penguin Book of Political Comics by Steef Davidson.

 

6. Cent Pour Cent Bande Dessinée, Gilles Ciment (Ed.), Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de L’Image, France

This, basically, is the catalogue that accompanied the Cent Pour Cent Bande Dessinée (100% Comics) exhibition that first opened in Angoulême during the 2010 comics festival, and that has travelled extensively since. The idea for the exhibition, and hence the book, came from Gilles Ciment, a well-respected comics theoretician and historian who was also one of the founder members of the OuBaPo7. Basically, the premise is that 100 cartoonists from around the world were approached by the Musée de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême to take a page from the museum’s extensive collection and reinterpret it in some way. Some cartoonists redrew the page, adding or removing elements, others added a coda to the page, still others analysed their feelings towards the page.

The result is a wonderful collision between the old and the new, the classic and the modern, and not always in the way you’d think. The book beautifully presents the original page and the re-imagination opposite each other on each spread, and the end section contains analyses of each page by a celebrated comics historian and brief biographical details of the cartoonists. It must have been quite something to see the exhibition, and all those wonderful originals, but the book presents the work magnificently – each page is lovingly shot so that details like blue pencil and whiteout can be clearly seen, and the package is excellently designed and produced.

All in all, the exhibition was a superb twist on showing original pages in a gallery, and the book more than adequately reflects that. Yet another reason that if you have even a passing interest in comics, Angoulême is a must visit place, even when the Festival isn’t on8.

 

7. Wilson, Dan Clowes, Drawn & Quarterly, USA

There’s not a lot that can be said about Dan Clowes that hasn’t been said before, and by someone far more eloquent that me, but I have to admit that for the longest time, I wasn’t the biggest fan. By the last few issues of Eightball, though, my opinion on Clowes and his work began to change and I started to see why everyone else used to rave about him.

So, Wilson. I think that Clowes has become a master of setting and conveying a particular mood, and this book is no exception. The eponymous main character is pretty much a cast-iron git. He’s mean, self-centred, rude and somewhat of a sociopath. He’s also a very unreliable narrator. As the book progresses, he decides to find his ex-wife after the death of his father. From his ex-wife, who left him when she became pregnant, he finds out that he has a teenage daughter. This is the trigger for Wilson to try to rebuild the family he never really had, but true-to-character, the way he goes about it isn’t exactly normal.

The book is structured as a collection of one- to two-page strips, each drawn in a different style, that combine to tell the story. This could have been quite jarring, but to Clowes’ credit, it actually adds another layer to the storytelling by helping to convey the mood inside Wilson’s head. At it’s heart, the book is an exploration into growing old and the effect on our lives as told by a man who embodies the worst traits of all of us. It’s funny, bittersweet, and in places, downright miserable. It’s the work of someone at the very top of their game.

 

8. At The Mountains of Madness, INJ Culbard, SelfMadeHero, UK

This is quite the book. Why? Because it made me actively want to read something by H.P. Lovecraft for the first time in my entire life.

The book’s creator, Ian Culbard, seems to have emerged fully formed out of nowhere this year. This isn’t the case, of course, as he’s been working in animation for years. But his first major comics work were the adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes books with Ian Edginton, again published by SelfMadeHero, and it was here that we first saw his la Ligne Claire stylings combined with an exceptional design sense and a rare grasp of telling a story through the comics form.

At The Mountains of Madness sees Culbard take over the writing of the adaptation as well as the art. Now, being a non-fan of Lovecraft’s I have to say that until I read this book, I had never previously read anything by the acclaimed horror author, although I’ve read plenty of things that were influenced by his work. I’m not totally sure why that is, although I have a feeling that the names of the Elder Gods had something to do with it (strings of consonants leave me cold), and it was with some trepidation that I approached Culbard’s book.

Well sir, I read it and I was astounded. I would guess that trying to adapt a very creepy story from prose to comics has to be up there as one of the hardest things to do and get right, but Culbard manages it perfectly and makes it look effortless. In fact, it was so good, I went back to the source material and read that too. And now I’m even more impressed - Culbard has captured the tone and atmosphere almost faultlessly. And the artwork? Oh, the artwork! Part of the appeal of Lovecraft’s work is the grandiosity of it - the architecture, the visceral repulsive nature of the Elder Gods, the awe-inspiring settings - and Culbard is more than up to the job of conveying it all. It’s like Hergé crossed with Mézières, it’s that good.

I’m not a great believer in adaptations from one medium to another, but if they were all like Culbard’s work, then I might just change my mind. Oh, and now I’ve started digging further into Lovecraft’s work. That’s all his fault too.

 

9. Solipsistic Pop No.3, UK

Something slightly different at number 9: an anthology. Like all anthologies the quality of the contents varies from story to story, but with Solipsistic Pop it’s slightly different. Because each issue is themed and tightly edited by Tom Humberstone, the driving force behind SP, the variation goes from good to utterly magnificent; there’s nothing in here that doesn’t fall somewhere in that range.

The theme/aim of this latest edition of SP was to create a comic for all-ages. And this it does pretty damn well. Every strip manages to be engaging without being patronising, and several can be read on many levels while a few are just sheer fun, a trait that can sometimes be forgotten these days.

As with any anthology, there are a few stand out strips, and for me there are three that fall into this category: First, is Luke Pearson’s The Egg. This is the first strip I’d seen of Pearson’s but it was obvious from first glance that here was a major new talent. His sense of design is quite phenomenal and like my other two standout strips, the limited colour palette (red, black, grey) really intensified the atmosphere and storytelling on show. It’s also a cute little story that doesn’t end quite the way you (or the protagonist) thought it would. I looked up Pearson on the internet after reading The Egg and found out two fascinating things: 1. He’s only 23 (!!!), and 2. He’s getting better and better all the time. Really, look out for him. He’s going to be everywhere soon.

Second, Faz Choudhury’s The Elephant of Surprise. Full disclosure: Faz is an old and very good friend of mine. He was (is?) a member of LCD, and we published his book The Malice Family back in ’99. All that aside, there’s one thing you must know about Faz: he’s an excellent cartoonist, and truly, I’d say that even if I didn’t know him. The Elephant of Surprise is a character that has been knocking about inside Faz’s brain for quite a while now, and I couldn’t be happier that he’s finally on paper. In this story, which I fervently hope is the first of many, The Elephant (a somewhat Holmesean detective) solves a case of a missing son, reflecting on the nature of feeling alienated as he does so. It’s a charming and thoughtful little tale accompanied by wonderful brushwork and the best use of colour in the the whole book - I know that he sweated blood on the colouring, and it really shows. It’s simply marvellous, and any comic that includes Dwat (here masquerading as Dimly Albright, the Elephant’s young assistant) is automatically worth your time and money tracking down.

Last, but certainly not least, is The Torturer’s Garden by Rob Davis. Another one of UK comics unsung heroes, Davis is a cartoonist who, if there were any justice in this world, would be a massive, massive star. And hopefully, 2011 will be his year, but more of that later. His story in SP #3 is the standout work in the whole book, and even if the rest of it was utter cak, it would still make SP #3 one of my books of the year. It’s a reflection on the nature of ‘menace’ and how childhood is one long series of ‘menaces’ that never really end, maybe even into adulthood. It’s a bleak, chilling and somewhat heartbreaking glimpse into the hidden side of being a kid, especially if you have children of your own. I would wager that it also has more than a touch of autobiography about it. The artwork is masterful, the work of someone who really knows both how to draw and how to make comics. Using the limited colour palette to excellent effect, indeed even to draw on a very famous UK comics character of our childhood, the story zips along at a furious pace to end on a note of hope or despair, depending on your disposition. It’s undeniably brilliant.

As I said above, 2011 will hopefully be Davis’ year as the book he’s working on, an adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote will see its’ first volume released then. I’ve seen some images from it, and it’s stunning.

Back to SP #3 then; It’s an anthology that will reawaken your love of the anthology comic. I can think of no higher praise than that. Buy it before it’s gone.

 

10. Studies in Comics Vol. 1, Julia Round and Chris Murray (eds.), Intellect Journals, UK

Another book on comics, not a comic itself. And not really a book, either, but a proper academic journal. Remember when I said about how we used to dream about comics having this sort of exposure? Well, the fact that comics have entered the academy would have just about exploded my brain when I was eleven.

Studies in Comics is one of a number of new academic journals on comics, but for me is far and away the most interesting. It’s basically about how comics work. As they say in their aims: “[SoC] aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium9 as a distinct art form, and address the medium’s formal properties”.

There have been two issues published so far, and they’ve been quite, quite excellent. Subjects as diverse as the use of subjective time to metafiction to how the visual and verbal elements in comics intertwine have been among the topics discussed, and they have a seriously impressive roster of writers and editors on board. Harry Morgan and Thierry Groensteen have been interviewed, as has Gabrielle Bell, and the whole package is handsomely designed. If I have one quibble, it’s with the printing - it seems to have been digitally printed, and not too well either, especially the cover where the white out of blue text gets a little lost. This aside, though, it’s a very welcome addition to comics scholarship and it’s about time we saw something like this in English.

You can download the entire first issue from the publishers website as a series of PDFs, and if you have any interest in the mechanics of comics, I’d advise you to click on this link right now.

 

So there you have it. My top ten comics and comic related books for 2010. There were a lot of other books I would have liked to mention, but time is against me, so I’ll try to point out some other good stuff on the blog in weeks to come.

Have a lovely Christmas and a happy, healthy and chock full o’comics 2011!

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1 Arse, I just did.

2 My li