50 (well, 52) Excellent Comics from 2007 Page 5
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Ray Smuckles goes to hell. Panel from Achewood, ©2007 Chris Onstad.
I've said it before but it bears repeating: Achewood is the funniest comic strip currently available in the English language, in print or on the Web. Chris Onstad's secret society of talking stuffed animals and anthropomorphic pets operates under a semi-crazed dream logic that resembles our own reality just enough to make the wackier bits that much more hilarious, and his deft attention to character makes you care far more than the concept would seem to allow at first glance.
Alas, Achewood's strengths are also its biggest drawback, as you really won't get much of the humor without reading six months or so of archived strips. Still, it's more than worth the trouble. The sight of Cornelius the Bear tearfully ripping at the Star Wars tattoo on his chest — the product of a prior night's drunken outing — only really makes sense if you understand what motivates the character, and is only funny if you're familiar with how composed and erudite he ordinarily carries himself. I can't imagine how the episode would read if you're coming to it cold, but it gave me one of my biggest belly laughs of the year. God damn but I love Achewood.
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Freakish, obtuse and fascinating symbolism abounds. Double-page spread from The Blot, ©2007 Tom Neely.
Tom Neely's debut graphic novel gets my vote for the single oddest release of the year. Working mostly without dialogue in a beautiful evocation of classic bigfoot cartooning styles of the early to mid-20th century, Neely uses themes of intimacy and paranoia to craft a surreal tale of desire and powerlessness gone apeshit.
There's this guy. He leaves his home and steps out onto the street, not noticing the giant inkblots hovering out of his line of sight until he's well on his way. They harrass him, lunge at him from the face of a paperboy, frighten the hell out of him. He runs home, only to find a duplicate of himself, the blots streaming from its face. They fight, and the duplicate is killed — but the guy wakes up to discover that the inkblot has now infected him. A hat arrives in the mail, big enough to cover his head and allow him to face the world again. He goes to a diner. There's this girl...
This book has been in my house for months, and I keep returning to it every couple of weeks or so, in yet another attempt to suss out its hidden meanings. I think that the inkblots represent a sort of Nietzchean will-to-power — it's not just a sex thing. The inkblots can build houses, fight monsters, grow trees. So what is the wolf that shows up in the second half? Sexuality? A female vision of male virility? Am I overanalyzing this? Is it really just a story about getting over your first girlfriend? The Blot is the comics equivalent of a Chinese finger trap — the more you think about it, the more puzzling it becomes.
Still, there's an enormous level of talent on display here, and it's easy to imagine Neely's subsequent works gaining far more attention than the word-of-mouth this work has generated among art-comics aficionados. The Blot is an ambitious and thought-provoking debut that will linger in the back of your mind for quite some time.
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Alice in Sunderland
Above: Past and present, literary and comics history, drawing and photography, all woven together in this page from Alice in Sunderland, ©2007 Bryan Talbot.
Bryan Talbot reaches for every artistic weapon in his arsenal to create this dizzying, multilayered history of the British town of Sunderland, and the role it probably played in the lives of Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), Alice Liddell and the children's books that resulted from their acquaintance, the Alice in Wonderland series. Also included are scenes from the history of comics, British pop culture and the life of Talbot himself.
Alice in Sunderland dances along multiple tracks, beginning with a framing device in which a local yob serves as the sole audience member at the Sunderland Empire theater, watching as Talbot's stand-in narrates from the stage. From here, Alice in Sunderland offers us recreations of classic stories and Carroll poems, leads us on a walking tour of Sunderland and draws us through dense collage pages combining line drawings, altered photography and found images, only to snap back to the Empire as the Audience of One heckles the narrator over his storytelling faults. Rivers of information stream through the book, connecting centuries of history and literature to the present day as Talbot dances from the lives of Carroll and Liddell to the distance between the dawn of English history and the shipyards of 20th-century Sunderland. Talbot not only builds a palpable sense of place, but then widens his scope to include progressively larger and larger cartographies of space and time, before narrowing the story back down to the streets where he lives and the people of the neighborhood.
As showmanship, it's as audacious a performance as one can possibly imagine taking place on the comics page. There are dozens of ways and hundreds of places where Alice in Sunderland could have run off the rails, overwhelmed by the dense interweaving narrative tracks and ambitious schedule of destinations, but Talbot navigates the journey with skill and verve. Visually it's marvelous, a feast for the eyes, taking full advantage of the design opportunities offered in the Age of Photoshop without ever allowing the tools to dictate the results. His cartooning is marvellous, of course, but Alice in Sunderland also gives us a glimpse at Talbot's skill in collage, something that his prior, more traditional cartooning efforts might not have led one to expect.
In the end, however, the story's the thing, and Alice in Sunderland offers one of the most satisfying stories of 2007 — the history of a place, a people and their culture. It's one of the best evening's entertainments you'll experience.
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The Acme Novelty Library #18
The Acme Novelty Date Book 1995-2002
A walk-on role in everyone's life but her own. Sequence from The Acme Novelty Library #18, ©2007 F.C. Ware.
2007 saw two major releases from Chris Ware, and while they weren't similar works, together they make for a fascinating look at both Ware's singular artistic sensibility and the reason that his shadow looms so large over the literary-comics movement.
Take the eighteenth volume in his Acme Novelty Library series, for example. Setting aside his Rusty Brown serial for an issue (and with it his usual fascination for fanboy losers and lonely middle-aged men), Ware introduces us to one of the characters from his Building Stories cycle, a twentysomething flower-shop employee who had the beginnings of both a relationship and, seemingly, a future, until her lover abandoned her and the resulting hole in her life left her unable to imagine what a second chance might look like. Obstacles that she was once able to overcome — mainly centering around the unspecified accident that cost her the lower half of her left leg as a young girl — now seem insurmountable.
As this volume's story unfolds, our heroine shuffles through the empty routine of her day-to-day life, no longer entirely sure why she still bothers. Running back over the course of her life, we see her early years, the small jobs through which she first made her entryway into adulthood and the rise and fall of the only love affair that she's ever known. Doors of opportunity open just a crack, only to swing shut when she tries to pass through them. These aren't melodramatic moments; you've likely encountered any number of setbacks just as crushing and just as survivable. As we watch them accumulate, however, we can see meaning slowly vanish from everything that she desires, until all that's left is the empty longing.
Ware's nuanced ear for perfect character moments and his obvious empathy for their plights keeps the reader caring about what happens next. He immerses you so totally in the life of his protagonist that as you reach the end, you can feel the numbness slowly stripping away her sense of self even as she makes her last half-hearted struggle against the process. And while the occasional bursts of visual trickery and long, quasi-cinematic moments that seem to go on forever are certainly the most obvious strategems driving his unrelenting narrative, it usually takes two or three turns through the issue before you realize just how many different levels of storytelling components are being manipulated to create this effect.
A single example, for those of you who already own copies of the book: What's her name?
Illustration from The Acme Novelty Date Book 1995-2002, ©2007 F.C. Ware.
It's this consummate artistry, this total control over the language of comics and this mastery of art and storytelling that makes Chris Ware the first person one is likely to think of when attempting to describe the modern graphic-novel movement. His elegant, stripped-to-the-bones cartooning removes all trace of authorial presence from the page, eliminating as many distractions between reader and story as is humanly possible, adding considerable focus to the relentless intimacy that he brings to the inner lives of his dramatis personae. But there's far more to Ware's talent than what's usually seen on the page.
For a look at the artist behind the façade, we turn to the second installment in his series of sketchbook excerpts, The Acme Novelty Date Book. Here we see the artist honing his mastery over his art, both as an illustrator and as a cartoonist, and it's here that we understand how the difference between the two crafts informs his artistic choices. Ware's sketches have both a looseness and an attention to surface detail that will likely surprise a reader of his comics who sees them for the first time. These drawings and rough cartoons offer a look at the thought that lays behind the finished product, and the relentless sense of perfectionism that drives Ware to produce it.
The works found in these pages are lush and supple; Ware's skill for form and contour make his sketchbooks the most joyous treat for fans of pure illustration beside those of R. Crumb. Here, Ware's drive for artistic excellence is even more noticeable for its lack of final polish — one can see the naked expressions of theme and subject matter as they stand, before the artist has set to work stripping them of their extraneous details, the ideas considered briefly and them cast aside, the appreciation of drawing and cartooning before they've been bent to Ware's artistic aims. The notes written alongside the drawings are almost invariably exhortations to himself, demands that he do better, abusive sarcasm meant to strike later when he looks back over the sketchbook. He isn't quite as withering in his self-assessment in these pages as he was in those culled for the previous volume — by the mid-1990s, Ware seems to have found a mild rapproachment with his own sense of insecurity, buoyed perhaps by the accolades and whatever evidence of artistic maturity he allows himself to see when looking at his own finished work — but it seems clear that Ware can't totally abandon his Inner Taskmaster, lest complacency dull his artistic power.
Between these two volumes, a portrait of the artist, his art and the processes that drive it begins to emerge, and while it's no doubt an incomplete picture, it's as close to accurate as we're ever likely to see as readers.
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Enigmatic images from the opening montage of Nijigahara Holograph, ©2006 Inio Asano.
A family walks down a path, near the neighborhood where the mother and father once worked as elementary-school teachers. The mother, Kyoko, is readying to divorce her husband, but they still get along well enough for the time being.
They pass Nijigahara Field — "nijigahara" translates as "rainbow" in Japanese. She doesn't have pleasant memories of the place; over a decade ago, she saw a little girl being attacked by an older man in the field, and when she attempted to intervene he slashed her face.
"There's an old folktale about monsters called kudan in this town, stretching back generations," says Kyoko, staring down at the place from the road. "There was a cutom of washing dead kudan down the river."
"Kudan? The monster with... the head of a human and the body of a cow?" her husband replies.
"Yep," she says. "They prophesy disease and bad crops and then die. It was said that if you sent a single kudan down the river up there, it would wash up as twin kudan right here. So they called it Two Children Field. Over time, I suppose people thought the pronunciation stood for Rainbow Field."
They talk for a moment. She discusses her fears, and how past tragedy has shaped her life. And then he asks her:
Read excerpt from right to left. Page from Nijigahara Holograph, ©2006 Inio Asano.
It's not a major moment from Inio Asano's haunting, elliptical novel Nijigahara Holograph, but it captures the tenor of the work very well. In some 300 pages, Asano weaves an entrancing and horrifying tale of murder, isolation and regret that has stuck with me since I first read it in scanlated form some nine months ago. It details the lives of a group of schoolchildren, and how their childhoods shaped the adults that they would eventually grow to become. Komatsuki is the school bully, driven by a tragic act of violence that befell a girl about whom he cared very deeply. Suzuki is a young boy whose past scars have left him an emotional void, and yet a small piece of him holds out one last ray of hope — he carries it around in a little tin box. Maki's scars haunt her too, but they came from her own hand, leaving her awash in a sea of guilt that she'll spend the next dozen years of her life trying to avoid thinking about. When they grow up, their paths will meet again, and the results will...
Nijigahara Holograph is a difficult book to discuss, for two reasons. First, it's one of those books that depends upon the slow revelation of detail, and the more you know about it in advance, the less of a body blow it delivers as you read it. And make no mistake: This book will hit you hard. The other reason is structural. Asano weaves his tale by leaping back and forth in time, jumping from our young protagonists' experience as fifth-graders to the lives they would in turn lead as twentysomething adults, leaving little clues and hints as he goes. Next to nothing is what it seems at first — by the time you hit the middle of the story, you encounter moments that change the flavor and meaning of scenes that you read dozens of pages back, as more details accumulate and Asano's infernal storytelling logic comes more clearly into focus. It flows with an almost poetic sense of imagery and purpose, and by the time the final piece of the puzzle falls into place, you realize that Nijigahara Holograph is in turn just a fragment of a larger puzzle, the pieces of which can only be imagined.
Like I said, it's a difficult book to discuss, but few other books from last year have stayed with me as has this one. For further discussion on this book, read Bill Randall's review of the Japanese-language edition in his column for The Comics Journal #283, still on sale from Fantagraphics. Someone, anyone, license Nijigahara Holograph for legitimate print, I beg of you.
(Postscript: I must confess that, even as I was writing the above, I was also helping manga translator and Kyoto Seika University professor Matt Thorn to negotiate with my boss, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, over the creation of a new literary manga line, and was for a brief period given the title of Consulting Editor of the line for my troubles. I proposed several books for the line, and while I sorely wish that they'd taken up my pleas for Naoki Yamamoto's Believers or the comics of Shintaro Kago, the sole book that I managed to pitch successfully turned out to be Nijigahara Holograph — indeed, it was the Mangascreener scanlation that convinced Gary that the book would be worth his while. See? Piracy can be a force for good in the world...)
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Walt and Skeezix 1925-1926
April 22, 1926 strip from Gasoline Alley, collected in Walt and Skeezix 1925-1926; ©2007 Drawn & Quarterly.
While I'm an enthusiastic fan of the early American comic strip — I must have checked The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Strips out of my local library two dozen times before I turned ten years old — I must confess to not being particularly knowledgeable in its history and particulars; certainly not knowledgeable enough to make grand, sweeping pronouncements or the like. It's for this reason that I've always been cautious about claims that this strip or that strip was a forerunner to some great movement in cartooning decades down the line. That said, there's no reason that the work can't speak for itself, and in this, the third volume of Drawn & Quarterly's collection of Frank King's Gasoline Alley, you can see it moving towards exactly the prototype for the graphic novel that many of the strip's adherents have claimed it to be.
With its gentle Midwestern humor, one can imagine that Gasoline Alley must have looked a little out of place on a page filled with flop takes and rubbery clowns — like a Saturday morning cartoon schedule with one of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories unceremoniously dropped in the middle, or something. The strip may have started out as a series of sprints in the first volume, but by this collection it's eased back to an ambling, leisurely stroll, as King hits his ideal pace and the story becomes more of a slice-of-life soap opera than a gag strip. What began as a series of jokes about cars and the gearheads who maintain them has fallen by the wayside, as the final elements of a gentle family comedy fall into place. Oh, the gearheads are still there, of course, but they've stepped further toward the backdrop, occasionally brought out to the front of the stage for a couple of days' routines before stepping aside while Walt, Skeezix and Phyllis dance around their slow creation of a family that will dominate the strip for decades to come.
The art is just flat-out gorgeous. King's skill with a pen, his genius at composition and his ability to manipulate effects of light and shade are in full flower with this volume. When he pulls out all the stops, it's never less than a showstopper. That said, King is thrifty with such moments. Generally, he draws with a light touch, including enough detail to let you know where you are without wasting lines trying to distract you from what's going in in the story. And make no mistake: By this point, Gasoline Alley features its story front and center, taking full advantage of the continuity-strip form and using its endless progression of days to create a work of very human, down-to-Earth narrative genius.
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Numi wanders amidst the aftereffects of tragedy. Sequence from Exit Wounds, ©2007 Rutu Modan.
Koby is a taxi driver, making his way through the day without any noticeable expectations for the future and seemingly content to do so. His life is upended when his despised father's girlfriend, Numi, approaches him with the news that Dad may have been killed in a Hadera suicide bombing. From the moment that Koby agrees to aid her in discovering the truth, he also begins denying the damage that his father's abandonment has caused him.
Most artists using the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as the backdrop for a story — or any other conflict, for that matter — would have offered up the story's characters, their motivations and actions as metaphors for said conflict. Modan takes the opposite strategy, using the conflict that has torn at her nation for decades as a metaphor for the simple, human drama presented in her book. The conflict itself is explicitly mentioned just once, and even then in somewhat oblique fashion, when Koby curses peace protestors from his cab; even then, the narration is concerned with another topic. In Exit Wounds, the political conflict might as well be a tornado. Suicide bombings like the one that may have killed Koby's father are only visible in their aftereffects, and their frequency dilutes even this — the tendency to mistake a well-known bombing in Haifa with the one in Hadera is a gruesome running gag throughout the book. Tragedy is like that. It sweeps in without warning, tears pieces from your body and soul and then vanishes, leaving you to cope with the damage.
Put simply: Rather than using the story as a microcosm through which the outside world can be seen, the outside world becomes a macrocosm through which Exit Wounds illuminates the war between Koby and his father, and the lies at the heart of the relationship between his father and Numi. I wasn't expecting this story when I picked up the book to read it, and I was mightily impressed when I set the book back down.
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Page from King-Cat Classix, ©1992 John Porcellino.
From my review of the book back in May:
John Porcellino was the Ramones of the 1990s minicomics movement — not many people read his photocopied, handmade comics, but seemingly everyone who did started making their own minicomics, and his influence as an artist thus exceeded his circulation as a publisher by a considerable amount. Porcellino's series King-Cat Comics and Stories affected readers through its sincerity, simplicity and utter lack of self-consciousness. Other autobiographical cartoonists struck poses, invited their readers to puerile voyeurism or otherwise strained to make themselves interesting; Porcellino just wrote about his life, sent the results off into the postal system and went onto the next comic. He wanted to communicate, to discuss his life, but he wasn't after fame or notoriety. He just wanted to talk to you.
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Whether in the city or the coutryside, the game's the same. Sequence from Tamara Drewe, ©2007 Posy Simmonds.
The set-up is simple: Cosmopolitan newspaper columnist Tamara Drewe moves back to her family's home out in Ewedown, hoping to get away from London's big-media circus and big-city stress. Instead, she discovers that both have followed her. That's an oversimplification, of course. Tamara Drewe's plot is a slow accumulation of little incidents and details that slowly rise and engulf its cast over the course of 112 meticulously staged pages. Very loosely based upon Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd, Posy Simmond's latest book centers around a small bed-and-breakfast catering to writers and novelists, and the local girl who left the village, moved to the big city, got herself a facelift and glamourous lifestyle and then returned to the nearby house where she grew up. It's also about the surrounding villagers, raised on a contradictory diet of celebrity-soaked media and small-town life, and their reactions as they watch literary celebrities and the occasional A-list star drive in and out of this discrete, remote, bourgeoise corner of their world. Oh, and sex — it's also about sex.
Like most other U.S. fans of her work, I discovered Posy Simmonds through the Pantheon edition of her previous novel, Gemma Bovary, and was immediately enchanted by her knowing combination of delicate, almost Raymond Briggs-like cartooning and narrative sophistication, which was "adult" in the best sense of the word. I've hunted down other books by the artist since then — I also recommend her 1981 novella True Love — and when this latest book was released in the U.K. I immediately put my order in with a British bookseller. What I received was Simmonds' finest work yet: an absorbing tale of modern urban sophisticates retreating from their worlds, hoping to regain a little rustic leisure but discovering instead that they'd brought their modern sensibilities and difficulties with them, and that in any case, many in the countryside were as eager to become more like them as they were to become more like they'd imagined smalltown folks to be like.
Simmonds manages to pack a great deal into 112 pages, and she makes it look effortless. Her layouts are exquisite, combining text pieces, newspaper layouts and panel-driven narrative that would've left me convinced of a Chris Ware influence if I hadn't seen previous works by the artist. Her sense of color is likewise impressive, cleverly moving from warm to cool palettes as situation and mood require. But it's really in the mix of text, layout and illustration where Simmonds shines the brightest. Each element adds complementary notes to one another, resulting in a story almost symphonic in its scope and agility — character gestures can multiply with tonal range, framing devices and panel captions to create moments and insights far in excess of the sum of their parts. This is masterful storytelling, presented by an artist at the top of her game.
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Above: a breathtaking image from a book full of breathtaking imagery — The Arrival, ©2006 Shaun Tan.
The Arrival is the story of an immigrant touching down on the shores of a strange new nation, possessing little more than what he could fit into a suitcase and the love and trust of his family back in the old country, who wait patiently for him to earn enough to send for them as well. The story is told without words; instead, Tan uses a... blend of imagery and...
It's those damned ellipses that get me. What the hell am I supposed to put there? What words capture the experience of reading this magnificent, mindbending book? Tan uses images that are alien to the point of incomprehensibility to depict the new land we have entered; we watch people, creatures and things move and function, and we can see how they might act that way, but it's like nothing we've ever seen before. Leaving customs officials who've poked, prodded, examined us and stamped our papers with inexplicable squiggles, we find ourselves in what looks like an exposed elevator slightly smaller than a refrigerator, attached to a balloon which carries us over the city and drops us off... somewhere. We look for a familiar face, or at least one that recognizes our confusion, and luckily someone does just that. We follow the immigrant in this new land, we learn with him how to make our way within its borders, and like him we master its strange shapes and contours sufficiently that we too feel like we could bring new people to its shores and show them how to navigate its cities, customs and expectations as well as has our fellow immigrant.
This book's exotic and evocative imagery is greatly enhanced by the style in which it's drawn. Tan's art isn't simply photorealistic; it's sepia-toned dagguerotype-realistic, and the effect is never less than stunning. Reading The Arrival felt vaguely like getting drunk. I was entranced by the experience of a visual tour-de-force that I can only compare to Dave McKean at his most outlandish — only there's no collage or Photoshop involved. This book was hand drawn. This book is a feast for the eyes and the imagination, and it tells a story that will stay with you for just that reason. The Arrival is a sublime work of art, and it's easily the best comic I've read in the past year.
This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal in early 2008.
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