50 (well, 52) Excellent Comics from 2007
With 2007 at an end, it's time to look back on what the year brought to us in terms of comics. The next issue of The Comics Journal (issue #288) will include its annual critical round-up of the best from 2007, featuring picks by a wealth of top-ranking artists and critics. I didn't have time to participate while the issue was being assembled, but over the holiday break I finally had a moment to myself, sat down and puzzled out the works that impressed me the most. I present the results here.
Any way you add it up, 2007 was a fantastic year for comics entering the English-language market from all over the world, both in print and online. I bought so many good comics this year that I'm surprised I didn't wind up in bankruptcy court — and there were still an unholy number of critically lauded works that I missed. The biggest gap in my comics diet last year was Fantagraphics, oddly enough, for reasons too convoluted and embarrassing to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I missed out on everything from Percy Gloom to Love and Rockets to the Ignatz comics and the company's line of comic-strip reprints. Likewise, the only Picturebox book I read this year was Christopher Forgues' Powr Mastrs, and while it was a fine and entertaining little book, I had no problem finding 52 titles that I enjoyed even more. I can't afford books from Sunday Press, so their output is missing from the list as well.
Also M.I.A. is Naoki Urasawa's Monster: I own every volume released to date, mind you, but I first encountered this title via unauthorized digital translations a few years ago, realized that it was the sort of thing that I'd want to read straight through in book form, and resolved to wait until its print serialization was complete before digging further into the series. Consequently, I buy each volume without reading it, stocking them on my bookshelves like wine aging in the cellar. Err, if I had a cellar, that is, or the patience to save wine without drinking it.
What else? Oh, right: I gave up on newspaper strips and editorial cartoons many years ago. Every once in a while I'll go back and read up a random sampling of strips online, and the results invariably leave me just as depressed as when I read recent superhero comics in mass quantities. Ugh.
What follows, then, is the best of what I actually read. For what it's worth, just whittling this list down to 50 titles was difficult, and ranking them even moreso. The titles I wanted to include but couldn't were legion — everything from Genshiken to Templar, Arizona to Strawberry Marshmallow to Empowered to Nodame Cantabile to The Immortal Iron Fist to Welcome to the NHK to Questionable Content to MegaTokyo to scores of other comics that entertained me. 2007 offered up such a wealth of great comics that it's easy to imagine why so many other critics' best-of lists contradicted one another. What a fantastic time to be reading.
One final note: There are a number of manga in this list, so be advised that the illustrations for those entries are unflipped, and you'll need to read them right-to-left, rather than left-to-right. You already know this, right? Just checking.
So what made the cut? Let's count it down...
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All Star Superman #6-9
Superman Squad to the rescue! Sequence from All Star Superman #6, ©2007 DC Comics.
It may have been a good year for comics, but 2007 was a horrible year for superhero comics. Even good titles wound up wrapped in mega-super-crossover event schemes, rendering them unintelligble to casual readers who just wanted a good story, and there weren't that many good titles this year to begin with. I could of course be prejudiced in this, insofar as I have a rule about not buying a title once it crosses over with one of those Amazon Civil World War Countdown Hulk things — which means that, for the most part, I've been sampling most of my superhero-comics reading off the spinner rack at my local Borders this year. Likewise, I have difficulty taking seriously those titles that take themselves too seriously, given that the basic tropes and clichés of superhero comics were created as storytelling devices for ten-year-old boys some 65 years ago. Use them for high-octane adventure tales, or scrape off the parts you don't need and retrofit the genre to the stories that you want to tell, and I'm totally capable of enjoying a superhero comic. Alas, there wasn't much of that in evidence this year, and attempts to write sophisticated crime dramas with half the cast in its underwear — which is what we got this year, by and large — only tells me that much of superduperdom's creators and readers need to grow the fuck up.
Fortunately there was All Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's ongoing attempt to see how much clever writing, gorgeous artwork and Silver-Age weirdness they could cram into each issue of a well-created and unpretentious all-ages comic. That last bit's important: I think that a good half the reason that this series works is the fact that its creators do in fact recognize Superman as a character for children. These comics contain no hyperviolence, no "TV nudity," no pseudo-lesbian tease, no dimwitted attempts to recreate the story as an erzatz Sopranos. Instead, All Star Superman offered its readers a fun and imaginative roller-coaster ride — which is what these things are supposed to do, dammit! Morrison (along with Gail Simone and Mark Waid) seems to be one of the few comics writers who admires them without having to rewrite the genre for the sake of maturity-addled kidults. In All Star Superman, his love for the genre remains infectious. What a shame that this makes the title so unique.
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Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings
A cartoon by Joe Palooka creator Ham Fisher, from Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings. ©2007 Ham Fisher.
Let me state at the outset: Anyone expecting serious pornography is bound to be disappointed by this volume. The sharpest it veers into blue material is the section devoted to the late Wally Wood, and anyone who's seen the numerous reprints elsewhere of his material will tell you that even Woody doesn't get all that explicit. Still, there's enough here to qualify as eye candy for this volume to make for an enjoyable afternoon's reading. Editor Craig Yoe knows his cartooning, and has managed to assemble an appealing and often funny collection of girlie drawings and gag panels by artists as diverse as Carl Barks, Milton Caniff, Joe Shuster, Ernie Bushmiller, Alex Toth, Rube Goldberg, Bruce Timm, James Montgomery Flagg and a host of others. That's a mighty impressive display of talent there.
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William of Stonham explains the stakes. Sequence from Crécy, ©2007 Warren Ellis.
In August of 1346, after weeks of burning villages and generally terrorizing the French countryside, an army commanded by Edward the Third decimated their French opponents and forever changed the way combat was waged. In 48 terse, fascinating pages, writer Warren Ellis and artist Raulo Caceres explain exactly how they did it. The storytelling strategy employed here is simple but effective: One of the English commoner-soldiers serves as narrator, casually speaking to the reader as he walks through his part in the battle. No pretense is made that he's talking to anyone other than you in the 21st-century, which pushes the story being told from dramatic immediacy back to quasi-documentary narrative, but that only makes the tale more interesting, allowing for asides that put the situation in context and providing more historical understanding than a straight-up dramatic retelling could provide. After explaining the weapons they have at hand and how they're used, for example, our narrator stops and tells us:
These things are going to look primitive to you, but you have to remember that we're not stupid. We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don't have the same cumulative knowledge you do. So we apply our intelligence to what we have.
I have a mild problem with the artwork. Caceres has the basics of layout and panel-to-panel narrative down fairly well, but there are pages where few distinctions are made between the linework used to delineate characters and that for their surroundings. Tonal gradation is often sacrificed to mere detail, resulting in muddy rivers of line that sometimes inhibit smooth reading. Ellis' narrative is both entertaining and edifying enough to overcome Caceres' deficiencies, but Crécy suffers a bit for it nonetheless — an artist with a better sense of light and shade could have made this one of the twenty best comics of the year, rather than one of the fifty best.
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Speak of the Devil #1-3
A darkly fascinating voyeurism permeates this series. Page from Speak of the Devil #1, ©2005 Gilbert Hernandez (published July 2007).
With the first three issues of this six-part series, we learn once and for all that even stripping Gilbert Hernandez of the use of explicit sex and nudity doesn't rob his work of its engaging and often disturbing sensuality. Indeed, it may well be the author's most perverse work since the Fritz stories from his Luba comics.
In Speak of the Devil, a teenage girl with voyeuristic urges puts on a devil mask and spies through the windows in her neighborhood, with a special fascination reserved for the sex life of her own father and stepmother. It won't spoil the story if I tell you that Val's obsessions will slowly lead her down a dark path from which she might never return — the third and latest issue ends on a cliffhanger that any other storyteller would conclude with the heroine's eventual doom. Hernandez, on the other hand, is not nearly so second-guessed as any other author, and where this series will eventually lead is still anyone's guess. Speak of the Devil is another fascinating tale by one of the medium's acknowledged masters.
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Pluto Chapters 37-47
Read excerpt from right to left. A newly widowed robot attempts to cope with her grief. Sequence from Pluto chapter 47, ©2007 Naoki Urasawa/Studio Nuts, Tezuka Productions and Takashi Nagasaki.
Naoki Urasawa's radical reimagining of Tezuka's classic Astro Boy story "The Mightiest Robot on Earth" cranked up the drama in its most recent chapters, with the deaths of its two protagonists offering Urasawa the opportunity to wring genuine human drama from a slight, decades-old adventure story. One of those protagonists will return, of course, as anyone familiar with the original tale already knows — but that doesn't diminish the emotional involvement that has made Pluto one of the top-selling comics series in Japan. Urasawa's supple linework, immaculate pacing and seemingly effortless ability to twist Tezuka's plot inside-out (while still remaining true to its spirit) once again demonstrates him to be one of the finest longform genre cartoonists working today in any language.
(Postscript: This review originally concluded with a discussion of how to acquire the Mangascreener scanlation — "scanlations" are amateur fan translations of unlicensed manga — as Pluto hadn't yet been licensed for legitimate English-language translation and publication. It since has appeared in print, so I have elected to dispense with the rest.)
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A Softer World
Excerpt from a strip, ©2007 E. Horne and J. Comeau.
Here's something that you don't see every day: photocomics that actually work as comics. The big problem with such comics — fumetti, the Italians call them — is that it's difficult to stage such things without the results looking noticeably staged. Horne and Comeau get around this difficulty by ignoring linear sequence in favor of a tableau setting, usually cropped pieces of a single photograph as the backdrop for cleverly written text, which then carries the bulk of the storytelling. At its best, A Softer World best resembles a devilish form of multimedia haiku, brief glimpses into situations that make you stop and think "What the fuck?" just as often as they'll make you laugh. At their best, the resulting comics pack a serious punch that more than justifies a weekly visit.
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I Killed Adolf Hitler
The last time anything goes as planned. Sequence from I Killed Adolf Hitler, ©2007 Editions de Tournon — Carabas/Jason.
In theory, the plot is simple: On an alternate world where assassination is not only condoned by law but a licensed profession, one such killer is hired to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler before he can launch his plan of conquest and genocide. In practice, however, this is a Jason book, and therefore nothing is going to happen as planned. I Killed Adolf Hitler takes a simple idea and expands it outward into a surprisingly moving meditation on regret, forgiveness and how both might be effected by the opportunity to go back and do it all over again. It's another homerun swing from one of Norway's finest cartoonists.
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Nextwave Vol. 2: I Kick Your Face
Death comes to Dirk Anger, director of H.A.T.E., but doesn't keep him from his duties. Sequence from Nextwave Vol. 2: I Kick Your Face, ©2007 Marvel Characters, Inc.
The twelve-issue miniseries Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., the last six of which are collected in this hardcover, was a clever and action-packed diversion for readers seeking cheap kicks and the chance to turn off their brains for a few minutes. In theory, it's a "comedy," or a "parody" or some such. In practice, it's a punch-em-up comic with lots of jokes on the side, maintaining just enough plot and character interaction to bridge the gap between bits of over-the-top violence. It's also an idiosyncratic book: Replace either of its creators, and the results would cease to be entertaining. Warren Ellis could plainly write books like this in his sleep, and in this case it only proves that he should sleep more. Stuart Immonen has a clean, cartoony style that maintains enough fidelity to the real world to satisfy the book's dual laughs-and-action functions with seemingly effortless dexterity. The result is a fun read for people looking to watch lunatics hit each other, exchange witty banter and blow things up. It's junk food for the mind, sure, but it was among the best theoretical confectionaries I've encountered in quite some time. The fact that this book contains trace amounts of evil Stephen Hawking clones with flying wheelchairs and deathray eyes doesn't hurt, either.
(And yes, I'm cribbing from a prior review. So what?)
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Mushishi Vols. 1-2
Read excerpt from right to left. Ginko treats a young man whose eyes have been infested by strange and otherworldly creatures. Page from Mushishi Vol. 1; ©2000 Yuri Urushibara, English translation ©2007 Yuri Urushibara.
One of the quietest set of ghost stories I've ever read, Mushishi depicts a world of rural Japanese villages and countrysides, where elemental life forces — "mushi" — possess strange powers and affect the lives of the humans around them, and where professionals devoted to dealing with these creatures — "mushishi" — wander the land plying their trade. Our hero Ginko is one such mushishi. Each chapter of this gorgeous and evocative series features an episode from his many encounters.
Mushishi was Yuri Urushibara's debut as a cartoonist, and to date the series has earned her a 2003 Japan Media Arts Festival "Excellence Prize" and the 2006 Kodansha Manga Award. Her cartooning is dense with an earthy lushness, and her stories move with a soft, gentle stride that greatly affects and enhances the mood that they contain. I called these "ghost stories" because there really isn't a better phrase by which to describe them, but the terminology is imprecise; mushi aren't really ghosts but natural creatures operating in strange but knowable patterns. While traditional ghost stories trade on horror, Mushishi trades on mystery and wonder, telling small tales of everyday people who cross the paths of circumstances greater and stranger than themselves, and demonstrating the limits of what we can and cannot do when confronted with such circumstances.
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The Complete Iron Devil
Frank Thorne goes too far, and he's still got farther yet to go. Page from The Complete Iron Devil, ©2007 Frank Thorne.
The most regrettable thing about Fantagraphics' Eros comics line isn't the often second-rate porn comics cranked out for a paycheck, but rather the way that their association taints the truly good comics released under the same banner. Molly Keily's joyous, beautifully drawn bisexual romps in particular suffer from the proximity to crap like Here Come the Lovejoys — her work has been a true delight, miles above mere stroke material — but the biggest victim has to be this sinister, masterful bacchanalia by former Red Sonja artist Frank Thorne. Don't be fooled by the publishing imprint. Thorne doesn't just want to turn you on, he wants to freak you out and leave a couple of lasting scars upon your brain, and he clearly had a damned good time in making the attempt.
Running amok in a land of crazed angels and devils, where everyone thinks with their gonads and to Hell with the consequences, Iron Devil is a Sadean erotic masterpiece that would probably have been forgotten in the last ten years' porn onslaught, had the Folks Who Write My PaychecksTM not been so doggedly determined to foist it on the general public until somebody finally noticed. Seriously, who else would have published this infernal thing at all, let alone three times, this latest version in hardcover? By turns arousing, hilarious and disturbing, The Complete Iron Devil is one of the few comics by a longtime mainstream comic-book professional that can not only go toe-to-toe with the output of notorious underground cartoonists such as S. Clay Wilson and R. Crumb, but gives the best works of such mid-century avant-garde writers as Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs a run for their money as well. No wonder this comic led to prosecutions in Oklahoma...
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