Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary















Home > Commentary and Features

Eight Stories for '05 #5 -- Books-With-Spines Bonanza
posted August 25, 2005
 

image

Industry watching is necessary and frequently amusing, but one of the biggest news stories for three years running comes down to basic, grunt publishing news: what's out from whom and what's worth reading. In other words: Holy Crap, do a lot of pretty good books get published these days.

The historical likelihood of this sort of sustained output should all by itself boggle our minds. I'm not sure people remember how bad things were 30 years ago, as the undergrounds wheezed, the newspaper comics were pretty much Peanuts and 20 other features where people drew simply enough to be read at that size, and the mainstream comic book companies were reportedly hiring people with a Viking funeral in mind. Twenty-five years ago in an interview with Steve Englehart, the co-owners of Fantagraphics and the lauded mainstream comic book writer had to sit around and dream of a day when full-length books of quality might indeed be released, suggesting that if someone were faced with a 250-page comic book they might flinch and run away.

imageIf you would have asked me in the year 2000 I would have told you that quality trade works were going to come in cycles of every three or four years (1994 and 1998 were pretty stellar). But about 2002 everything seemingly just locked into an every-year basis. If I were to be pressed to explain why under oath my guess is that you have one generation (Clowes, Sacco, McCloud) who were able to continue making comics by furiously working their asses off and getting better as a result, followed by a generation many of whom have continued pursuing art despite their being no conceivable way of supporting themselves very well through it, getting better just to keep making the pursuit of art worthwhile. There's enough from each group, with a few thrown in from other comics "camps," (still-active underground artists, ambitious mainstream-oriented writers, France post-L'Association's impact) to make for a tipping point.

With those factors in mind, it's no surprise the distinguishing characteristic of this crush of books has proven to be the depth of quality just below the potential masterpieces. The years 2002, 2003 and 2004 are similar to the good years in the 1990s with three to five potential all-timers showing up, but in addition they also consistently featured 25-30 pretty good books. There was a much steeper drop-off before. The end result is that if you're into a wide variety of material it's an adult buyer's comic book paradise, even if only shopping off the top of one's head.

imageThe second half of the year 2005 kicked off to my mind with Rabbi's Cat and Top Ten: The Forty-Niners, both of which I have yet to read. Joann Sfar's work should be interesting to see because Sfar's reputation as a cartoonist is based on amazing facility rather than one of two significant high works of literary value. Alan Moore's superhero prequel to his loopy, entertaining Top Ten series isn't the first original graphic novel from the author that's claimed for it, but unless I'm missing my guess this could be one of the last books or the last book he does for a big publisher like this, and one of the final ten fingers of your hands in terms significant comics projects from Moore of any kind. There's a richness and precision to Moore's superhero projects that only the writer Grant Morrison comes close to matching of comics authors over the last 25 years, so I'm not sure why the supposedly excellent Top Ten: The Forty-Niners isn't the subject of a bigger fuss.

Pantheon releases two long-awaited books this Fall. Charles Burns' Black Hole collection, a story so subtly told that many who read every darn comic in its serial release are awaiting this iteration to find out exactly what was going on. Plus it should be gorgeous. Ditto the latest ACME Novelty Library book, which should also remind us how funny a cartoonist Chris Ware can be. Fantagraphics of all publisher has two major debuts yet this year. Jordan Crane's The Clouds Above should be out any moment. Crane's been around a while, but has yet to release a sustained work or one that properly captures his technical skill as an image maker. R. Kikuo Johnson's Night Fisher is the first significant blind submission FBI has published since maybe Graham Chaffee's Big Wheels. It's a strong and very appealing work, the equivalent of coming of age literature, confidently told and providing an introduction into a very specific way of life. You'll see what I mean.

Perhaps the best news of the Fall is that after a long period of relative idleness in terms of major, major releases, Drawn and Quarterly punches back with two really good original works -- Guy Delisle's Pyongyang, a quiet first-hand look at North Korea through a artist's eyes; and Wimbledon Green, Seth's densely told but loosely and lovingly drawn comic narrative about a group of comic book collectors that thwart each other's grandiose plans like characters in a Carl Barks story but agonize over their complicated feelings regarding the value of such endeavors like something Kim Deitch might depict. Plus it's really funny.

imageElsewhere: Renee French should close out the year with her most ambitious book, The Ticking; Dean Haspiel and Harvey Pekar team up for The Quitter; with the fourth and final Sleeper trade Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips close up shop on one of the signature efforts from mainstream comics companies' attempt to do HBO-TV show versions of what they typically do for a comparably select and conservative audience; WW Norton starts re-releasing the first of its Will Eisner Library efforts in volumes I'm inclined to buy this time. Gary Panter may have another Jimbo book out by Christmas. It's astonishing how much is out there to be read.

And you know, I'm sure I'm forgetting five or six books that are #1 or #2 on a smart person's list somewhere. How likely was that in 1978?

That's less than half a year. Not bad for a publishing category that didn't exist 30 years ago. And that's before you talk about books from Asia, which I'll discuss tomorrow.