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June 25, 2008


Twelve Mostly Overlooked Comics Published In The Last Twelve Or So Years

The risk in naming a set number of comics as overlooked or under-appreciated is that every creator feels that their work should receive more attention that it has; in fact, at about noon today I plan to start deleting (without reading) the angry e-mails from those of you who think your book is more deserving than some of the following and feel the need to tell me so. With that in mind, here's a small sampling of good or otherwise interesting books that it seemed to me and maybe only to me were here and gone, or that never caught on, or that linger in my memory more than I've ever seen them being talked about, or that simply surprised me by being available. If any of them sound interesting to you, I encourage you to track them down.

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Angkor, Lorenzo Mattotti, Oog & Blik, soft cover, 110 pages, 9054920912 (ISBN10), $39.98.

Part of a large comics project that sent several excellent cartoonists to locations around the globe, Angkor drops Lorenzo Mattotti into the fabled 9th Century ruins. The great Italian artist and designer proceeds to do what he does best: re-imagine an evocative setting with color and shadow. It's narrative-light, but oh so beautiful. The version from Oog & Blik (mine's from Seuil) may include an English translation by Sophie Crumb. There are so few Mattotti books of any kind that one this good should not have flashed by unnoticed.

*****

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Apocalypse Meow Vols. 1-3, Motofumi Kobayashi, ADV Manga, 145 or so pages each, 1413900178 (ISBN10), 9781413900170 (ISBN13), 2004.

There are so many fine, undiscovered manga out there -- say Hideshi Hino's Hellbaby or even one of the same-period anthologies -- that would make me look so much more cool were I to mention them. I have to be honest here, though: when I found myself casting around for manga series to include on this list, I kept coming back to this three-volume story of prime-time artistic bizarreness. It's one thing to use animal stand-ins for human actors: there's a deep tradition of that in comics and in fantasy storytelling, and it allows for a level of visual identification and the ability to magnify the story's chief plot points that you can see why an author would go there. Where Apocalypse Meow gets weird is that despite scene after scene of bunnies acting in a hardboiled fashion, a creative choice that indicates straight-up satire, you begin to get the sense that Kobayashi's heart lies with drawing guns and equipment accurately, in providing a sense of core realism that honors the lives of those he's using to establish his narrative. It's like The Boys From Company C as played by the Muppets, only you keep waiting for a musical number that never arrives and Fozzy Bear gets capped before they get off the boat. Apocalypse Meow (its original title was the even better Cat Shit One) exudes loopy qualities from every pore in a way that makes it a time capsule of its historical moment, when translated manga seemed poised to take over the comics world no matter what the hell might be happening on the page.

*****

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Canicola #1-5, various, soft cover, 80 pages (#4: 192 pages), 2005-present.

If in the '90s you read Lapin to familiarize yourself with a generation of mostly French creators, you might want to start reading Canicola for the same experience with mostly young Italian cartoonists. Well-designed, subtitled in English and featuring artists such as Michelangelo Setola, Amanda Vahamaki and potential break-out talent Andrea Bruno, Canicola provides an almost impeccable anthology experience for the American reader wanting to see a bunch of new works and approaches in one convenient place. You'll feel cooler for owning a copy.

*****

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Cirkus New Orleans, Josh Simmons, Top Shelf, mini-comic format, 32 pages, January 2001, $10.

Josh Simmons' arrival announcement from seven years ago was a pitch-perfect, frequently hilarious exploration of life on the fringes of even semi-respectable society. Simmons' ability to inject himself into the story without impressing himself upon it remains a model of how to do memoir-style comics, and his artwork has a richness he wouldn't quite fold into a recurring style until the more recent Jessica Farm Vol. 1 and House. This iteration of that story is on its last legs publishing-wise, so snap one up if you can. I can't imagine my collection without it.

*****

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Comanche Moon, Jack Jackson, Reed Press, softcover, 128 pages, 9781594290039 (ISBN13), October 2003.

This was one of the efforts from Reed Press' abortive line of quality alt-comics reprints. It's not hard to find Comanche Moon in previous versions, which might be one of the reasons this edition didn't get over all that well sales-wise. There's no reason you as a reader should care. Jackson was an excellent cartoonist, one of the half-dozen most under-appreciated in comics history. This story of two generations of a Comanche family and and their relationships to the white settler communities with whom they each enjoy blood ties is a fine book, full of vigorous art and told with sympathy to human weakness no matter where it's found. I see Comanche Moon all the time in comics shop discount bins, and I can't imagine a better purchase of that type.

*****

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Jar of Fools (Revised Edition), Jason Lutes, Drawn and Quarterly, softcover, 152 pages, 9781896597720 (ISBN13), September 2003, $16.95.

I know some of you out there just did a spit take, but I'm mentioning Jason Lutes' first major work because 1) this was at one point one of the beloved books in alt-comics, 2) you almost never hear about it anymore, and 3) I somehow missed the fact that there was a brand-new edition five years ago.

*****

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New Love, Gilbert Hernandez, Fantagraphics, comic book, 1996-1997.

This series was totally nuts and hilarious, and if it had come out from a brand new cartoonist instead of springing from the prolific pen of Gilbert Hernandez right after the conclusion of Love & Rockets Volume One, we would have talked about nothing else for three or four years. Although it's anchored by several sweet and well-observed strips starring Hernandez' great Venus character, my memory of New Love lies mostly in the army of quality short strips it offers, work that barrels around the comics narrative landscape like a drunk in a pick-up doing donuts in an empty Wal-Mart parking lot. Most of this work was reprinted in Fear of Comics, but the format that flatters these comics most is the original comic book series. New Love was an inventive shot of energy onto the stands every few months, a kind of comic experience that may have since faded from existence.

*****

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Paris, Simon Gane and Andi Watson, SLG, softcover, 136 pages, 9781593620813 (ISBN13), August 2007, $10.95

This lovely romance combines an elegant and fairly straight-forward script by the hardworking Andi Watson and fascinating art by the vastly unrecognized Simon Gane. Gane's work manages to combine the smooth and luscious figure work that one would imagine might be a preferred strategy working in this genre with a kind of grainy funkiness that suggests the creep of old buildings and the bustle of lively crowd scenes better than maybe any other artist going could have accomplished. A deeply pleasurable comic to read, I think it may work best as comics (there was a four issue mini-series), but you'll probably have better luck with the collection.

*****

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Richard's Poor Almanac: 12 Months of Misinformation in Handy Cartoon Form, Richard Thompson, Emmis Books, soft cover, 176 pages, 1578601843 (ISBN10), 9781578601844 (ISBN13), November 2004.

The great, emerging star of this decade's newspaper strip scene, Richard Thompson hasn't stopped doing his Richard's Poor Almanac work in favor of spending more time getting Cul De Sac out. This collection of those works from a few years back shows that were he to abandon the Almanac for any reason it would be a total shame. Trenchant and exceedingly wry, this book may frighten if like me you realize that these comics have been around for as long as they have without your being aware of them.

*****

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Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret, Michael Kupperman, HarperCollins, soft cover, 128 pages, 9780380807901 (ISBN13), September 2000, $13.95.

This collection of Michael Kupperman's terrific Up All Night alt-weekly strips came out about 24-36 months before book publishers began to learn how to move such material through the bookstores and publicity landscape. It's a terrific book, full of laugh-out-loud moments as potent as any that have come from the cartoonist since. Up All Night is the last alt-newspaper strip over which I can remember my friends and I flipping out, asking each other multiple times if we'd seen that week's installment, repeating the jokes until every last bit of humor was wrung from the original idea. There are three or four people in my e-mail shortcuts list to whom I only have to say or write "Black Godfather of the Ants" to get them giggling. Kupperman should be a much bigger star than he is.

*****

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The Monster of Frankenstein, Dick Briefer, Idea Men Productions, softcover, 248 pages, 1419640178 (ISBN10), 9781419650179 (ISBN13), July 2006, $20.99.

This is a micro-publishing project that gets points because 1) these works are barely available and little seen, and 2) the project concentrates on Dick Briefer's horror-based work on the Frankenstein character rather than the slightly better known comedic material to follow. This is one of those projects that may later be supplanted by a publisher doing a fancier version, but until then, this will more than do.

*****

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US War Machine #1-12, Chuck Austen, Marvel Comics, comic books, 2001-2002, $1.50/each.

Maybe the craziest Marvel book ever, US War Machine is emblematic of that brief time in mainstream American comics when it seemed like a terrific idea for the major property-owning players to mess around with its second-tier characters by marching them through the violence, language and sexual implication wringer common to a TV show on HBO or Showtime. US War Machine was a cheaper-than-usual, black-and-white comic, done in a cartoonier-than-average style by reasonably well-liked cartoonist turned much-maligned superhero comics writer Chuck Austen. I can't say that this adventure of Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes overseeing an armored division of spy agency SHIELD is any good in any way, but US War Machine has an energy and feverish quality to it that you tend not to see in modern super-dupers. It reads more like a comic book a kid might dream up in the summer between digging up ants and throwing M80s in the water than it does a slick, professional product: more Stan Shaw than Terence Howard, if you know what I mean. There's no way in hell this comic would be done now, except maybe as an homage of the kind that occasionally sit up and beg for a film development check. Comics may not be artistically poorer for the lack of books like this one, but it's definitely a little less entertaining.

*****
*****
 
posted 4:05 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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