Saturday, March 10, 2007

THE 60 (OR SO) BEST COMICS OF 2006 - PART 2

Part 1 featured the unranked 40 (or so) Best Comics of 2006.
Part 2 is the ranked Top 20.

The Top 20

20. Dedini: An Orgy of Playboy's Eldon Dedini

If ever there was a book made with me in mind... I was the 12-year old that would sneak into adults' stashes of Playboy magazines with my friends and stare at the reverse side of the centerfold while everyone else crowded around the feature. Seriously. I mean, the ceterfold was usually the lamest photo in any given issue anyway and the backside usually had a funny, lush, pastel cartoon that would invariably knock my socks off. The girls in these cartoons oozed exactly the sort of dirty, fun-loving, smart, sophisticated sex appeal their dull-witted, airbrushed counterparts obviously lacked. Don't get me wrong, I spent a lot of time drooling over those glossy 23-year olds made up to look like they were in their mid-fifties — still do. But those girls always seemed to be playing a role, Dedini's girls were living the fantasy.

There's a big difference between your girlfriend performing an awkward striptease for you on your birthday and getting a professional lapdance from a girl who seems to have been born into the field. And then it's another thing entirely to find yourself dragged into a secret world by a beutiful woman desperate to unleash all her sexual desires upon you. And then it's a whole 'nother thing when that woman is smarter, funnier, more talented and more full of life than you are. This was the woman Dedini celebrated. This was the woman I was told was out there. This was the goal I could barely wrap my prepubescent mind around.

Whether I have found or will find that Dedini woman in my life isn't what matters though, right now. What does matter is that I've got this giant, smartly produced collection of some of the best Dedini cartoons to have appeared in Playboy. It's a classy-looking book and one I'll probably revisit many times as I start to whither into old age, reminding myself why I shouldn't regret never settling on anything less.

19. Ode to Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka

Can I talk marketing for a moment? Thanks. In no way do I consider myself to be any sort of marketing whiz, but the book design on this volume perplexes the hell out of me. The most popular comic in America (And the world? Is it the world?) is Naruto. It sells, wait, let me check my figures... bazillions of copies. It's a kids book, but all of mangasaurus rex is such a dominant species in comics that it sometimes seems the rest of the industry thrives just to provide it food. And what are some of the trademarks of manga's success stories? Well, presenting the pages in their original, Japanese right-left reading order is one. Leaving the graphic sound effects in the original Japanese is another. Selling the stories in a series of 200-or-so-page, 5"x7.5", $8-10 books would be a third. It's all about preserving the Japanesiness for the fans.

So, what do we have here? Vertical has supplied us with manga godfather Osamu Tezuka's classic thriller in a flipped-format (left-to-right), English-language-sound-effected, 822-page, 6"x8", $25 book. Am I mising something here? On top of that, the cover design is by Chip Kidd. I'm a big fan of Kidd's, but I'm not sure the book really needed a slippy-slide cover doohicky. And the pull quotes on the back are from Neil Gaiman, Andrew (Times online) Arnold, Adrian Tomine and Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Who is this book marketed toward? Vertigo-reared, Fantagraphics-lovin', Drawn & Quarterly manga fans who know who the heck Andrew Arnold is but can't be bothered to take the 10 minutes required to get used to reading from right to left? Does Vertical want to sell these books? I just don't get it.

That said, this book is crazy. It's about crazy people in some crazy circumstances doing the crazy that comes naturally to them. A doctor studying a rare disorder that doggifies people gets infected with the disease by a higher-ranking doctor who needs a test subject to ensure his election to the top spot in a medical society. The book follows the two doctors and the people around them as they try to discern the cause for the disease, encounter racism and prejudice, deal with Christianity, encounter various world cultures and try to stay alive. There's a dog doctor, a dog nun, a schizophrenic rapist doctor trying to be heroic, a girl who turn herself into a fried dumpling, political maneuvering, and some of the most virtuosic cartooning out there. There's a lot to make the reader feel uncomfortable (rape, the way several cases of Stockholm syndrome are accepted as par for the course, murder, infant death, disease, backstabbing, vengeance, seemingly hypocritical views about racism) and not many attempts to address the issues brought up. It's a strange way of approaching the subjects, but Tezuka is more interested in depicting the experience of these things than he is in editorializing them.

Visually, Tezuka has moved away from the Disney animation school of cartooning of his other works and embraced Warner Bros. caricature and flat, UPA-style minimalism. He also uses the page and a graphic approach to rendering psychology to not so much explore the possibilities of comics but to employ them as a master would his tools. It's a personal tour-de-force, for sure.

18. Phase 7 #10 by Alec Longstreth

Alec Longstreth took the alternative keyboard layout fanatics world by storm with the Dvorak Zine. After reading that book, I was thrilled to discover that Longstreth had a regularly published minicomic series out called Phase 7. Like myself (and, you know, loads of others), Longstreth created an umbrella title that could contain any comics he wished to produce: short stories, fiction, travelogues, a fantasy serial, etc. It was in the midst of his process-intensive fantasy serial, Basewood, that Longstreth decided to produce a quick two-part autobiographical fill-in story about falling back in love with comics and his desire to "make comics his wife." It's just the sort of story comic makers and readers tell each other all the time.

So many of us (especially of a certain age) share similar beats in our comics-loving histories, but we never seem to tire of telling or listening to these stories over and over again. Perhaps it's because we're looking for the differences in the stories. Perhaps it's because we lacked a way to bond with our friends over comics when we were young. Perhaps it's because we all love 'origin' stories and this story is ours. Or perhaps it's because it's the story we know best, and we have it hammered out so well, it's the story we tell with the sort of ease and enthusiasm that invites others in more comfortably than, say, a discussion of continuity errors in Arnim Zola's various appearances.

The last point is the key here, I think. Longstreth has developed such a facility for cartooning and storytelling that even in a piece a bit more dashed off than his current opus, he is able suck the reader right into his world and he barely has to ask to let him carry us through his minor heroic journey. The comic is self-effacing in a charming way, exactly as funny as it needs to be, full of the sort of details that really pop in your imagination and delivered with a contagious energy. It's the sort of comic that makes you want to read a busload of other cool comics and really step up your game every time you sit at the drawing board.

Of course, all the drama is contained in the journey. We already know the ending, and it's a happy one. It's what we're holding in our hands every time a new issue comes out.

17. Wish You Were Here #2: They Found the Car by Gipi

Tom Spurgeon was absolutely right when he said, "They Found the Car" has to be the best title ever". Can there be any doubt as to exactly what type of story this is going to be? In fact, it practically IS a story unto itself. It evokes a fatalistic noir and a gnawing, haunting past. It's poetry in the qualitative sense.

Beyond the title though, this short book is also one of the best crime fictions out today. From the achingly gorgeous wrap-around cover of two men standing, waiting, in a monochromatic, desolate landscape while car headlights approach from the distance to the Miller's Crossing-style ending, Gipi manages to meet our expectations for the genre while approaching it in a way that is simultaneously lush, decorative and all-too-human. The characters speak as if they know their history all-too well, and never stop to download tedious exposition. We don't need to know the details of their past crime because that isn't the story. The story is all about what happens when people try to erase the evidence of the past.

Visually, the book has no trouble meshing the vibrantly textured ink washes of the empty landscapes of deserted seacoasts, highways and swamplands with its characters depicted in an easy, comfortable minimalism. Gipi's rough-hewn line suggests a dilapidated Tardi, and his spacial relationships suggest an affinity for Tardi's wordless comics but his dialogue never overwhelms a scene or spoils the mood. And it is a moody comic. It might be the moodiest comic of the year. The ink washes work precisely because they make the whole book seem damp, foreboding and strange, the way even a familiar road can seem in the early hours after a rainstorm.

16. Mattie & Dodi by Eleanor Davis

Is anyone regularly producing minicomics as well-designed as Eleanor Davis? As little Jeffry says, "Not me!" Where to start? The red, textured cardstock cover die-cut to reveal a sticker featuring the elegantly drawn and colored titular characters? Yes. Open the cover and the full image and title are revealed. Inside, you are greeted by some of the most meticulous and assured cartooning in the field. The clutter of a child's homemade fort, the composition of easch panel, the dirt on the bottom of Dodi's feet. Then the double page spread that answers the question of the first page's sound effects and sets the book firmly in the nearly anachronistic landscape that can still find a solitary house amongst the hills and forests of a rural state.

Davis' skill at cartooning never falters in this short book. Her bold brush strokes are both well-considered and full of life. Her characters are so fully realized that they tell more of their story buy not telling their story than a less accomplished cartoonist could have them say by directly addressing their emotions, intentions and reactions.

This is a story about death. The death of a loved one. The death of a young adulthood capable of romantic love. The death of a child's innocence. The death of a future planned. The death of any hope at connecting to the larger world. Death and beauty are probably the hardest things in the world to approach verbally, and it's a bit of a masterstroke that Davis should confront one with the other.

15. Ganges #1 by Kevin Huizenga

Yet another Ignatz book on the list. If this wasn't the most financially successful line-wide debut of the year, it wasn't because the books themselves weren't artistic treasures. The problem with a year like 2006 was that this could've easily been 'The Year of First Second Books', 'The Year of the Ignatz Line', 'The Year of Eleanor Davis', 'The Year of Anders Nilsen', 'The Year of the Woman', 'The Year of the Graphic Novel Overtaking the Pamphlet Comic', 'Year of Manga Claiming Traditional Western Comics Fans As Its Latest Victims', 'The Year of Picturebox', 'The Year of Mega Superhero Crossovers', 'The Year of Line-Wides' (actually, maybe it WAS 'The Year of Line-Wides'...). Again, in any other year, it would've been easier for anyone to make a strong claim to any of these. But it's gotten more difficult to make these claims lately, and last year it was damn-near impossible.

If this were, say, 2003, we might've been able top call this The Year of Kevin Huizenga. Following his piece de résistance contribution to 2005's Kramer's Ergo #5, Huizenga seemed ready to conquer the art comics world by storm. His early Giant Monster minicomics were collected in the Drawn & Quarterly series Or Else. Then there was the Curses collection. And there was the beginning of his Ignatz series, Ganges.

While "Jeepers Jacobs" in KE5 is probably Huizenga's best work to date, the Glenn Ganges stories in Ganges are nothing short of impressive (I guess I should mention that just about all of Huizenga's comics feature Ganges). Ganges, like the river he's named after, sweeps all human detritus up into himself in an effort to provide some sort of spiritual awakening. He's an existential dilemnacist actively seeking Godot and a moral center that can withstand his own sense of relativism.

In this volume, Huizenga takes his fictional stand-in on a mental journey aimed at connecting the small moments in his day to the larger landscape of the collective experiences of all humanity at all times. Whether he's walking to the library, observing a boy littering, listening to a Beatles song or watching his wife sleep, Ganges contemplates the universality of the moment, the potential for tragedy inherent in the given situation and the significance of our individual places in the world. He's directly engaged with that particularly human capacity to realize that we can find ourselves centered between the infinite and the infinitesimal.

It's a difficult trick to pull off without seeming too trite, too maudlin or too naively profound. Huizenga walks a delicate line here, but he walks it with style. What helps him in his task is his nearly invisible cartooning. He's doing a lot of formal experimentation, but he never lets us get lost in the tricks he employs. Part of the reason we can so easily accept the world cascading in an array of panels, characters aging decades or transforming into other people from one panel to the next, is that it all happens from such an INformal way of depicting the world. It's an impressive work.

14. Mine by Jamie Tanner


Of all the "quiet bird-man" stories in Jamie Tanner's loosely linked series of minicomics, this one is like the episode of Lost where you found out what was inside that Hatch. We still don't know exactly what's going on in Tanner's disjointed little world, but we do get to see the beginning of the flood from Amber and we get a sense of who's being manipulated into acting behind the scenes in the quiet, Victorian, futuristic minining town.

The book begins with one of Tanner's characters at his most melodramatic before settling back into the uncomfortable disaffectedness that consumes most of the other characters. Watching all these characters pretend to be more jaded than they are is even more unsettling than it would be if they indulged in the sort of histrionics their situations almost demand. When it doesn't come across as creepy, it's incredibly funny. The two old-timers who find a dismembered woman in the street comment on the situation like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.

Tanner's stilted posing adds the perfect touch. There's just something not right about the stiffness of his figures, like watching stage fright- stricken 8-year olds perform line readings of A Streetcar Named Desire. He somehow puts us right in the front row with all the house lights on. It's like all the characters are looking at us trying to hide the disturbed contortions on our faces and appear proud, and it's all just making them more nervous as the show continues.

And it's not like the performers can run downstage and hide either. Tanner's nearly obsessive pen work and hatching flattens the stage to such a degree that each scene seems to take place on a narrow plank with an improperly affixed backdrop billowing gently behind.

The thing you have to realize though, is that it all works. Within the constraints of Tanner's style, each figure maintains a subtle nuance of expression. The democratic application of line gives even the shadows a character on equal footing with the people stepping in and out of them. It's hard to say that any of the scenes really mean something beyond what is presented, but when a comic has no meaning, then the meaning is the comic itself. And, in this case, the comic is as meaningful as anything out there.

13. Maybe Later by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian


As much as I enjoyed the fruits of the collaborative effort that produced the Monsieur Jean stories (see Get A Life, above), I'm somewhat addicted to examinations of process. Working separately for the first time, Dupuy and Berberian spend more than a year chronicling their lives as they prepare another volume of their acclaimed series.

What we get is many things at the same time. The two cartoonists document their own lives with the same quiet humanism they imbue in their famous character, complete with the same sort of self-doubt that plagues him. Monsieur Jean has been split apart to reveal the two complete beings that inform his own. The two also allow themselves to vary their stylistic impulses in a way that demonstrates compatibility while also giving them room to explore more personal modes of cartooning.

Seeing the intersection of the creators' lives with that of their character even as their own lives seem to be drifting apart and splitting from within is fascinating. It all culminates in a piece by Dupuy in which the fictional world and his own mental state collide, their barriers crumbling, in an increasingly churning and swirling visual hell. It's a marvelous summation of the themes of the entire book.

This is the indulgence of life taken to the point of alcoholism or some other drug addiction. As though the cartoonists have lived their single lives to the point where it risks damaging themselves and their families irreparably. They're plummeting toward rock bottom and are forced to decide between modes of living. Of finding a way to claim victory in a certain degree of surrender. Of trying to find a way to get their adult responsibilities and their youthful desires to collaborate with the same seamlessness of their cartooning. And along the way, they encounter all the high points, joys and pitfalls inherent in any personal journey.

12. Hikaru No Go Volumes 6-8 by Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata

You know how when you leave ye olde comic shoppe, you find yourself following certain patterns: these are the books you flip through first but don't actually read right away, this is the creator's work you always save for the end of the day, these are the books you bought but might not read for a couple of weeks, this is what you might pull out during your downtime at work, something else will make perfect commuting reading?

Well, whenever a new volume is released, Hikaru No Go is always the first thing I read. It might be the single most addictive comic I've ever read. It's an all-ages manga about Hikaru, a young underachiever who discovers a purpose in life and a facility for the game when he finds an old Go board possessed by the ghost of an ancient Go master. It's a story about realizing your hidden potential by working really, really hard. It's also the most fun comic I've ever encountered.

I actually read all 8 volumes currently in print this year, but it was only the last three that came out in 2006. #6 began with Hikaru taking a test to gain entrance into an exclusive school for potential professional players and the three books take us through Hikaru's training for the pro test and his continuing obsession with becoming the world's greatest Go player. In the process, he is also growing and maturing into young adulthood.

The secret of the book is in its ability to create incredible levels of tension and drama from the game play. Hotta and Obata are able to infuse Hikaru and the other characters with a palpable sense that each game, each encounter, is a matter of life or death. Of course, it isn't, and those that can put the recent past behind them and move on to the next challenge are the ones who are most successful. It's one of the best depictions of childhood and competition out there. The kids transform each moment into a lifetime and we watch them transform into people capable of seeing life as a compounding series of events.

The other secret is the cast. There are a lot of stories out there about young kids coming of age, but few feature a character as likable as Hikaru. Even when he screws up or behaves naively or shortsightedly, his two creators do so in the interest of making him more human, more capable of overcoming his obstacles. We can sit back and know that he'll eventually achieve his goal (or at least arrive in a place where his goal changes), but we also know he's not going to get there easily. For every two steps forward, he takes at least one step back, but it's what he does in reaction to failure that endears himself to us.

All too often, stories about young teenagers focus on a singular element of growing up. Their creators have forgotten the transitory nature of youth, the nearly bipolar experience of life at its most common extremes. The best stories encapsulate all the joy and misery of that manic depressive period. They embrace the act of discovering oneself just as surely as they lament the loss of who we were. Hikaru No Go is right there among them.

11. Monster by Naoki Urasawa

Unlike some other manga series I read, Monster has come out in a veritable flood of releases. The first six volumes all debuted in 2006, and it seems that the remaining will all maintain this bimonthly schedule. That's about 200+ pages every two months. Yes, I know the series originally started seeing publication in Japan 1995.

And we're not just talking quantity here. We are talking about a phenomenal genre exercise. Using a template familiar to fans of tv series The Fugitive and The Hulk, Urasawa follows Doctor Tenma, a brilliant Japanese surgeon living in Germany and on the fast track within a hospital's hierarchy. Years after choosing to save the lives of two children instead of a government official, he is accused of crimes he didn't commit. He embarks on an extra-legal hunt for the real culprit, whom he suspects is one of the children he saved. Along the way, he encounters other people hurt by his quarry and does his best to help them recover their lives.

The series begins its twisted route as a story about the pitfalls of career opportunism and quickly turns into a rather ambitious thriller. As Tenma plows deeper into the lives of his foe's victims and a German underworld filled with serial killers, organized crime empires, global financiers and the last vestiges of the Nazi party, he also finds himself in a psychological landscape that brings to mind a humanist twist on the films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. While Urasawa never indulges in the more fantastical elements of either director's works, the small town families and eccentric villains would find themselves at home were they transported into one.

But what really sets these characters apart from their standard genre counterparts is that Urasawa goes to great lengths to show us where each character is centered, even this means betraying themselves to instincts they didn't know they had. A brilliant, intuitive detective makes all the right leaps in logic only to find the wrong solution to his case. A woman spends her life trying to emulate the sort of opportunistic vamp you'd find in soap operas, but breaks down when she realizes she could help someone else. A retired police officer can't question the guilt of his own son, but finds a sense of redemption from aiding a fugitive. A thief tries to break stereotype to reveal a heart of gold only to discover that self preservation is his true calling. Whoever Tenma meets, they find that the things they are most sure of are the things they are most wrong about.

And what about Tenma himself? He's actually a bit of a cypher. Aside from his overriding quest for justice (or is it vengeance?) and his moral certainty, his other defining trait seems to be the ability to be invisible in a country where he stnds out like a sore thumb. While he drives and connects all the various story elements, he serves mostly as a vehicle for presenting their stories. The stories of the victims, the victimizers and a country closing out a century of upheaval.


10. The Beast Mother by Eleanor Davis

If we're handing out design awards for comics, I think that The Beast Mother might have to be the landslide winner. Featuring two screen-printed cardstock covers, the first: a double wrap-around, die cut along the profile of a frontier hunter and terminating in an extreme closeup of the titular character. It's a perfect meeting of somewhat complex book-making and somewhat minimalist style.

The 19-page comic within is slight on plot, but wraught with pain and moral complexity. Essentially, it is the tale of a hunter hired by a small town to recover its kidnapped children from a monstrous giant of a woman. It tells its story simply and with little dialogue, as Davis relies on her remarkable visual narative skils, smart selection of details and exquisitely chosen compositions. It is a sad tale that begs us to question the righteousness of the hero's quest and the evil of its antagonist. You know that what he does is right and what she's done is wrong, but you're forced to wonder if the children are better off in the end, whether they stayed with the Beast Mother willingly and if they've just had all the magic stolen from before their very young eyes.

9. Maggots #6: Ninja by Brian Chippendale

When Kramer's Ergo #4 came out in 2004, it was the scariest thing I ever saw. Every trip I made to the comic book store meant that I was going to be confronted by this monster of an anthology. It was big, it was ridiculously thick (500 pages, I think) and it sported a crayon-drawn, wraparound cover of two featureless monsters fighting atop a rainbow. The book terrified me. Flipping through it meant seeing the idea that comics could be anything we wanted them to be challenged from every angle. It was as if someone had taken that well-worn credo seriously and wanted to see how much water it could hold. And it forced anyone reading it to mix their metaphors rather badly. Oh, and it was the very best issue of an anthology I ever read.

There haven't been very many scary books on the shelves since then. No subsequent issue of Kramer's has come close creating that sort of existential dread. Gary Panter (the aesthetic predeseor to many of the Kramer's artists and master of actually imbuing his art with the ability to confer an existential dread in the reader) has put out a pair of large, frightening books. But everyone else seems to have been playing it fairly safe since then.

Then came Brian Chippendale, the caterwalling drummer of Lightning Bolt and friend of the the artist behind the cover of KE#4. The book is an 11" x 17", 144-page hardcover. It looms over every other book in the shops in bright, irredescent colors. Pointelism, post expressionism, collage and a child-like drawing of a smiley-faced boy about to decapitate another mix in an antagonistic slap across the face of traditional design theory. In doing so, it makes its presence felt and it stands out in a sea of artistic conservatism.

It is both 'outsider' sketchbook and 'outsider' graphic novel. The sketchbook pages seem to reveal an obsession with the sort of textbook margin drawings of a teenager preoccupied with seemingly simple renditions of role-playing game characters, Saturday morning cartoons, action figures, super heroes and monsters. It's full of three-armed demon samuris, little spacemen and dancing monsters. It's almost enough to drive anyone mad when viewed in its entirety, but a closer examination reveals an artist struggling to find as much nuance as possible within a deliberitely crude style. I find myself repeatedly drawn to a series of Lego astronauts Chippendale has used to explore the limits of expressionism within a limited palette. It's fascinating stuff, like looking inside a disturbed mind and finding someone trying to bring order and craft to the chaos.

The comic is a bit harder to get a hold of. In an industry where Western comics are read, each tier, from left to right and Japanese comics are read from right to left, Chippendale has crafted a narrative approach that incorporates both. The first tier of panels on a page is read left to right, the second is read right to left, and they continue to alternate down the page. This actually creates a suprizingly seamless reading experience and allows him to play with the sort of formal games only comics can allow (sometimes, a character will 'climb down from one panel, only to appear in the panel below, for instance). The only problems the reader encounters is in some of the older strips that have a more traditional panel-movement structure, and in the awkward situation one finds themselves in at the bottom of any given page, having wond up in the wrong spot to move on to the next one.

Another distraction is the juxtaposition of Chippendale's older comics, with their highly unrealized rendering and the overwhelming textures and dashes of his more accomplished work. It's a neat distraction though, as we get to see the way a Chippendale who might not have been very different from any of us turned into the Chippendale who is decidely different from all of us. And that's what, ultimately, makes this book just so damn fascinating.

This is the work of an artist unashamed of and possibly consumed by his worldview. He has taken the things we encounter every day, chewed them up, regurgitated them and spit them out in a way that is singular in its populism. Video game storytelling, role-playing game situations, dream logic, children playing make-believe, enviromental disaster, morally questionable redevelopment, the incidental characters that pass through our lives, scrambled tv stations, test patterns, sexual fantasies, heroic fantasies, revenge fantasies, socio-political screeds and all the things we do that we don't want our parents to know about all collide in something less than a proper story and more like a rare, rambling, drugged-fueled monologue that seems just as interesting days, weeks, months and years after it was delivered.

8. Solo #12 by Brendan McCarthy & Various

I'm not sure I have much more to add than what I wrote here. I tried to rewrite it a few times, but decided my initial impressions served best. It's an awesome comic, though, and its only flaw is that it makes the pain of not seeing more McCarthy work more frequently all the more sharp.

7. How We Sleep by Eleanor Davis

I'm pretty sure that somewhere I wrote that this could've easily been considered "The Year of Eleanor Davis." Three books in my top twenty and two in the top ten, not even the cartoonists I've followed for a decade-plus could manage that this year.

When I was ranking and re-ranking books for this list, I always found myself surprised at how high this book kept placing. It's a tiny book, a little more than three inches square and containing only 7 pages of art. It's also the sort of book that would get some comics fundamentalists up in arms, if they ever saw it. It's really just a series of seven drawings with no narrative structure. And it's one of the best comics of 2006.

Originally concieved of as a Valentine's Day gift for her boyfriend, Davis has drawn seven images of the two of them sleeping. For some reason, she has also gone the extra step and decided to make this very personal gift public. I'm glad she did. Davis is able to visually convey so much complexity in her comics, that she can take something as simple as two people in different sleeping positions and find all the sweetness of love, all the dialogue of figures in comfortable exchange and all the loneliness inherent in sharing a bed.

Sleeping together is such an odd excersise. It's the most intimate of situations and the most singular. There's no way for our minds to share the experience of the unconcious, but it is the time our bodies most often seek the embrace of others. It is a time of extraordinary vulnerablity and the time we feel safest. It's an act of unbelievable trust that Davis has allowed us to share in her quiet rumination of the most private of moments.

Also, it's beautiful to look at. This is some of Davis' most delicate linework and some of her most nuanced observations. All the more remarkable that her images are taken from something often clumsy and unobservable.

6. Hecter the Collecter #4 by Leslie Bloomfield & Adele Dresner-Moss

I originally reviewed the first three issues of Hecter the Collecter here.

I LOVE Hecter the Collecter. And I hate Hecter the Collecter. First, the hate. I hate the fact that Hecter's two creators have already put out more than half as many issues of their minicomic series as I have mine even though they are half my age. I also hate the fact that I'm not going to A.P.E. this year and will not be able to get whatever new comic the two have up their sleeves. I'm also upset that their website appears to be offline, so I can't get any hints. Oh yeah, I also hate the fact that these teens are reading far more sophisticated comics then I was at their age. HatehatehateHATEHATE!

And now for the love. The first thing I noticed about this 12-page mini with its glossy cardstock cover was the tactile nature of it. The blacks (inkjet?) sit on the gloss, giving it a slightly embossed feel. It's a nice tactile experience missing from most comics. Then there's the look of it. Bloomfield and Dresner-Moss are always experimenting with design in a way that suggests that they might not have the academic experience, but they've seen enough good design to make a go at it and they aren't particularly encumbered by the 'rules' of design that deaden more experienced hands. The drawing of Hecter and his girlfriend, Fang, excessively chained to a wall (there's about four separate chains on each leg) is framed by the title along with the story blurb. There's something kind of genious about sticking the issue descriptor right on the front. It might not seem that way at first, but try to think of ten comics that do that. And that blurb is written almost like a quick little note passed between friends, giving the whole entireprise the feeling of the same. Then there's the back cover featuring a giant hand completely tatooed with images of Hecter — one of my favorite images of the year.

The inside cover gives the main character bios, complete with histories and fun facts like their favorite foods, favorite painters, favorite bands and "Favorite Comic Book Hero of All Time" (one of them is Tin Tin). It's a fun little snapshot that will catch new readers up to speed and amuse those of us that already know them. Um, oh yeah: Hecter is a collecting-obsessed Giraffe, raised alternately by slugs and humans. Fang is a vampire moon godess born "about a million bajillion years ago."

The story is the first part of a longer one involving a cape-wearing orphan, mentally posessed by his evil witch stepmother and forced to attempt to murder Hecter and Fang. It's the story details and artistic chances taken where the book just shines though. It's a 'throw caution to the wind and see what sticks' approach, and it's great fun. Scrathboard effects intermingle with a clear-line drawing style across densely packed pages layed out differently on each page, ranging from traditional designs to manga-influenced to Eisner-esque meta panels to Chris Ware arrangements to panel structures more uniquely their own. Panels take on unusaul shapes to better showcase particular images and sometimes subsume their design to the page's.

There are several very funny moments and some rather bravura moments as well. One of the standouts is a mix of the two. The orphan boy, Ralph, finds himself battling his mother's control of his mind. His body contorts and interacts with the panel frames, reflecting his mental turmoil. It reminds me of something you might find in a Steranko or Dave McKean comic. Not the drawing itself, the drawing is simple and direct, but in the way it functions to drag the reader into his fugue state. Another page that kind of blew me away is the page in which Ralph recounts his life story. A block of text is nearly overwhelmed with a flood of images all blending together. The mix gives the story a black-humored edge, since Ralph's understanding of events has clearly whiewashed what actually took place. I'd hate to give away too many of the funny moments, but I was laughing most of the way through. Even the most disturbing elements, like Fang's vapirism, usually give way to an off-the-cuff joke or something visually hysterical (it's the laundry hanging on the just-completed giant treehouse that makes one).

I don't know when (or if) the next issue is going to come out. I do know that the team is supposed to be working on a graphic novel. I'd love to see the conclusion to this story, but I'm mostly interested in seeing what they do next. The two are still in highschool, so it could be just about anything.

5. The Ticking by Reneé French

I'm trying to think of a more embarassing admition than to say that The Ticking is only my second exposure to Reneé French's work (the first was in Comix 2000). I can't think of one at the moment. One that the five people reading this aren't already aware of, at least. I had little defense before, but I've got nothing after reading The Ticking.

Everything between the gold-embossed, cloth-covered covers (soft to the touch but hard inside) is beautiful. Told mostly one to two panels per page, pencilled with a texture that had me constantly going for the stroke and dialogue looking like captions written beneath family snapshots, this is one beautiful book.

A deformed boy is raised on an island in isolation by a father who was formally similarly disfigured. His father wants to keep the boy away from the eyes of other people until he's ready for a corrective operation. He provides him with a chimpanzee as company, but the boy is falling in love with the beauty of the things we think of as ugly. He's finding the beauty in himself as well, and wants to go out into the world as he is. It's a disturbing tale about a boy coming of age and coming to terms with who he is, even as he is haunted by a father who never could himself.

Things happen in small, quiet spaces, themselves in small, quiet panels. The simplicity of the characters reflects the simplicity of the message: one of being yourself. And all of this is crack-mirrored in the father, a man who wants to be simple, but fears a world he thinks is more complex than it often is. And it's his normality that is the cracked reflextion, as his son is closer to the world with his deformity. But the book never goes out of its way to depict the world as strange or accepting of strangeness, it just finds the small things that are and the places that will. And it shows us that the people who try hardest to fit in are often the people most afraid of not doing so.

4. Death Note 3-8 by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata


Okay. It only SEEMS like Death Note comes out every 4 months. Apparently, it comes out bi-monthly (and will for two more volumes in May and July). But it certainly FEELS like it comes out at a snail's pace. If it came out DAILY, I'd probably complain that it doesn't come out often enough. I imagine I'll be going through serious withdrawl pains after the last book is released. I know I'm not even remotely the first person to say this, but Death Note is truly the closest thing to comic book crack ever devised. There was only one point at which I questioned the direction of the series, but there were about fifty points where I just wanted the trip to last forever.

Death Note is the story of Light Agami, one of the smartest young men in the world (apparently), who has discovered a demon notebook that allows the user to kill whoever's name is written in it. He decides to save the world by installing himself as a god who punishes all criminals. Super-villainy as protagonist writ large. He's a particularly compelling character, with a mind like a chess-playing computer, constantly moving the pawns of his elaborate game against law enforcement's grandmaster: a mysterious teen detective. What makes him so fantastic is that Ohba uses popular manga's propensity for extensive thought exposition to unfold his thinking process before us, while keeping the eventual plans a secret. Ohba plays the reader just as expertly as Light does the world's police.

As the story progresses, the plans become increasingly complex and convoluted. The only time I wondered about the book's future was when Ohba played me into thinking that Light had given up and the villains would become some generic cabal of corporate raiders. Little did I know that this was all just an elaborate piece of gamesmanship.

An oft-noted flaw in the series is, that despite the constant plot upheavals, action and suspense, there is a certain the lack of well-rounded characterizations. The police chief/father exhibits exactly the sort of qualities you'd expect from that description. The actress girlfriend plays her part with little subtley. Many of the policemen are nearly interchangeable (except the comic relief character, who does little more than provide comic relief). But I think this complaint misses something. Certainly, this book is the only one this past year to put me in mantears and the only one to actualy get me to punch the air and shout, "YEAH!" (both instances involved Aizawa, a policeman with conflicting loyalties to proper police work, catching a criminal that eludes lawful capture, family and his partners).

It also ignores the fact that the characters are but pieces of a whole. It's the series itself that is the character. The story is internal moral conflict exploded onto the world stage. It's about the questions of power, of doing what is right when your most powerful tool is the ability to do wrong. Both Light and those that oppose him go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of a better world. Often, they abuse their power. Light almost exclusively abuses his power, but his arch-nemeses are not afraid of ruining lives, torturing suspects or resorting to murder. Light is also the one with all the friends, and the story's heroes are the ones without. It asks us who we'd really rather be should we realise the power to be anything.

Completing the book is Takeshi Obata's nearly flawless art. He (and, presumably, his team) brings his nearly Dave Sim style of figure work and Gerhardish backgrounds and tones down the humourous aspects seen in Hikaru No Go. It's still slightly exagerated, but grounded in an action-suspense vein, like Bernie Wrightson doing Jack Kirby. Jack Davis' Die Hard. And then there's his character designs. Ryuk, the demon Shinigami spiritually attached to Light's Death Note may be one of the best designs in recent years. He is a sort of bongage clown with an enormous mouth and ling, spindly limbs.

His one weakness (commented on in Hikaru No Go) is that sometimes a character will appear to be female only to be revealed as male. I'm still having trouble buying that Mello is meant to be a boy. Aside from that, he paces his visuals beautifully, his action sequences are ridiculously dynamic, and half the books' tension comes from his image selection and poses.

And that's the real secret of the series: the tension. My heart invariably goes into palpatations two thirds of the way into each volume. Everything moves so quickly, upper hands switch every fifty pages or so, plans come together and fall apart and opputunies are seen in failure and things just keep getting bigger and crazier and you find yourself routing for all the wrong people and you're left with a breathless feeling with each cliffhanger.

3. Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The best manga of the year is the one presented in the most unusual-for-manga way. And it's a new translation of a rather old series of comics. (author's note: I haven't read the volumes of The Times of Botchan that were released in 2006, but I loved the third volume released this year). It's a hardcover, it's flipped (reading left to right), it's not a standard size and it was released by Drawn and Quarterly. What the hell is going on here???

Tatsumi is heralded as starting the gekiga movement in manga — a movement comparable to the underground movement in America, except relegated to libraries instead of head shops. What a country! These were adult stories created for an adult audience and featured more 'realistic' settings and characters.

The first D&Q collection of Tatsumi works, The Push Man and Other Stories was good, but it's clear that this collection features Tatsumi entering a much more mature phase. His stories are denser and more complicated, often a bit longer. Each features a similar protagonist, a downtrodden man in a Japan modernizing faster than he can. The characters are struggling to find their place in this new world with it's innovations and social upheaval. They experiment with a more flexible morality, try to discard the elements of the past or kling to the very things becoming outmoded.

These are noir stories and fetish stories. Stories of men trampled on by women and stories of revenge. Stories of men unable to 'get with it' and stories of men finding new meaning in the trash and toilets. These are Hitcockian stories of men as the catalyst's of their own demise, of petty schemers and victim's of their own horrors. Stories told without pity or scorn, but with the sort of empathy that embarrasses us by revealing our own similar, if less gruesome, tales.

2. Paping #14: We All Scream For Silkscreen by John Meijas and Various

The best anthology of the year is the one no one is talking about. The great sin of it all is that I don't know if too many people are going to be able to. Limited to 200 copies, the website is listing the book as out of print. But I don't blame Meijas for limiting the run of this book, I BLAME him. Actually, the thing must've been ridiculously hard and time consuming to produce — I hate the basic printing, cutting and folding of my unadorned minis and this is, well...

The covers are wood. WOOD. Like wook paneling. The real stuff, not the fake stuff. Or the sticky paper. Wood paneling covers, drilled and handstitched with Shoelace. And each one features a unique hand-burned and stained image. Mine's got a bald man, with giant hands, wearing a tux. What does yours have?

Almost everything in the book is handmade. Silkscreened pages, block-printed pages, hand-drawn pages, linocut envelope pages — even the photocopied comic by Sara Edward Corbett is hand die-cut and sewn. Each artist's section is printed on different types of paper: computer paper, cardstock, constution paper, acetate, tracing paper, the paper a road map was already printed on... this is 'comics as art object' taken to an obscene extreme, like a wet-fart mooning in the general direction of Kramer's Ergo. It's also the most beautiful object on my shelves.

But how are the comics? First, this is a a mix of comics and porfolio pieces. Okay? Okay. How are they? Great. The first comic is the best comic Matt Weigle has ever done. In a departure from his usual adaptations of folklore and mythology, Weigle presents a boxing match between two mathematicians proving van Tiefbach's 3rd Conjecture. Huh? Don't worry about it. What's important is that Weigle has taken the phrase 'thinking with your fists' and turned it into a pun that transcends itself by incorporating the best drawings of Weigle's career. The best cartooning, really, as each punch landed in the ring explodes with mathematical formula until the mat is covered in the suff.

Other highlights include monster prints of Billy Mavreas and Shawn Cheng. Mavreas prints inky, swirly creatures on pages of childrens books and Cheng blinds you with his loudly spot-colored, elaborately decorated beasts.

All of the pieces are great, really, although the centerpiece is just heart-breakingly beautiful. Meijas tells a tale of trying to acquire chairs for his under-funded classroom. It's depressing that this is a tale that needs to be told at all, and the end is chokingly depressing but it's Meijas' broad caricatures, selection of moments, abstract design and image making that make the whole thing just sing. Like Weigle, this is the best work I've seen from Meijas with an approach to the picture plane that suggests Jean Dubuffet or Leon Kossoff working in woodcuts and producing comics.

Alone, Meijas' would be a remarkable piece but, considering that he also eidited and compliled the entire anthology, it Paping #14 as a whole that is his most remarkable work.

1. The Squirrel Mother Stories by Megan Kelso

I wrote about this book back in January. The only thing I'd like to add is that the book improves upon each reading. It was a fantastic way to bring in the year, and it's appropriate to close it out as well. One the best comics ever is in here, and the rest are quite good too.

5 Comments:

Blogger Jog said...

ARG, I had Paping #14 in my hands at spx but I bought one of the earlier issues instead for some reason... it's probably the book I didn't pick up there that I wonder the most about...

Did you know Eleanor Davis is part of the new regular lineup in Fantagraphics' MOME? Her first story's in the next issue...

8:56 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

Well, it's a heavy book. And it was $30 dollars. I could see a lot of people passing it by. Unfortunately, I think the previous issues I have fall a bit short of #14. Still interesting though.

And I did NOT hear that news. That's wonderful. If I were editing Mome, she would've been on the short list right from the start. The idea of more-easily acquired Davis has me very excited.

1:41 AM  
Blogger DerikB said...

Dammit, I don't want a reason to buy Mome again. I just stopped buying it!

But I love Davis' work.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

I haven't read the Trondheim yet, so I was going to be in it for that, at least. It does sometimes feel like the most expensive 10-page comic out there though.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

Also: Al Columbia in Mome!

http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/more_on_al_columbias_return/

5:50 PM  

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