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April 4, 2010


CR Sunday Feature: Best Of 2009

Archival/Reprints List

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15. Bloom County: Complete Library Vol. 1, Berkeley Breathed (IDW Publishing)

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14. Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me, Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics)

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13. The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)

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12. Peanuts: 1971-1974, (two volumes), Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics)

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11. The Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol. 2, Harold Gray (IDW Publishing)

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10. The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons 1913-1940, Edited By Trina Robbins (Fantagraphics)

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9. The Complete Jack Survives, Jerry Moriarty (Buenaventura Press)

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8. You Are There, Jean-Claude Forest and Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)


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7. Luba, Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

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6. The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, Edited By Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman (Abrams)

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5. Map Of My Heart, John Porcellino (Drawn and Quarterly)

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4. Locas II: Maggie, Hopey and Ray, Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

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3. Popeye Volume 4: Plunder Island, EC Segar (Fantagraphics)

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2. Humbug, Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder and Jack Davis and Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee (Fantagraphics)

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1. Alec: The Years Have Pants, Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)

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Notes On Archival Editions, 2009

This is kind of a messy list. My longtime desire to find a way to distinguish works that are brand new/brand new and those that operate in my mind as more of brand new work with a past history on-line or serialized or in a different language has come back to bite me on the ass. Luckly, there's no list jail out there (as much as some may argue with a passion that convinces otherwise.) I just have to kind of feel my way though. I'll also admit that in the case of Eddie Campbell's work, there's not only a genuine feeling that the work as collected is a supplementary presentation of those comics, I'll admit I wanted to find a way to make it a clear #1 in a year where in new works I could find so many works that made a case for the top spot on that list.

Campbell's book is extraordinary, and I'm kind of at a lost why the comics readership in general hasn't been spending the weeks since its publication sitting around stupefied by how entertaining and clever and frequently affecting it is. The thing about putting it into one place that surprised me was how not smoothly it sometimes flowed, how it revealed Campbell's circling around certain points and life experiences and working through the same issues in different guises. The highest compliment I can give Alec -- and this is no means a way to denigrate its considerable surface qualities because the pleasure of its company can be remarkable and life-affirming -- is that Campbell's work reflects not just a life as lived but mirrors the process of understanding that life: casting one's romantic past with as much gauze and Vaseline on the lens as possible, doubting your own good intentions, realizing that the accrued detail of your experiences has sent you in a different direction and trying to understand that, seeing yourself in the struggle of peers and family and friends. I look forward to re-reading it soon.

As for the other works, I thought the Plunder Island sequence was as good as my memory of it, which puts the latest volume of Fantagraphics' work with Thimble Theatre at the top of another ruthless year in that comics' realm. I'm a huge fan of some of the late 1920s sequences in Little Orphan Annie as that book settled into its more effective slow-building soap opera narratives. The Love and Rockets material is strong enough to be any list's #1, diminished for a list like this one only in that unlike a lot of comics the L&R material doesn't ever feel to me to have a primary home, a format above all others. That IDW's Bloom County book is where it is stresses how strong a year this was. While I have the typical child of the Reagan years' nostalgic enthusiasm for Breathed when he got going -- even if you preferred Doonesbury it was fun to have a strip in the paper that all your friends liked, and that had the kind of energy and momentum that one usually ascribes to a series of giggles -- it's worth noting that Breathed's attempt at national syndication started miles and miles from where he'd eventually settle into a sweet spot. That made this first volume kind of a difficult book to pull off, but it's also one I'd suggest for anyone on at least the library borrowing level for anyone wanting to understand comic strips and how they development after they start.

What else? Well, that Humbug book was a gift. Those guys weren't exactly working in a comedic milieu that flatters an easy reading of the work now, but the craft of it fairly punches you in the face. I wonder if it will be easy to read the moment I can stop thinking about how amazing it is to finally be reading this material. I bet so.

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Three Books More People Should Have Talked About (In No Particular Order)

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3. The Secret Science Alliance And The Copycat Crook, Eleanor Davis (Bloomsbury)

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2. Follow Me, Jesse Moynihan (Bodega Distribution)

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1. Cockbone, Josh Simmons (Self-Published)

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Notes On Books That Deserved More Attention, 2009

This is the one section that could, ever year, be 25,000 entries long. Save for perhaps the top manga series, Blondie and Jeff Kinney's comics hybrids, I bet there's someone out there that feels for every work there's many, many more readers to be had. Giant corporations with cross-media applications in mind bet billions on it in 2009. At any rate, you should probably consider these more emblematic choices than the only choices.

Eleanor Davis' Secret Science Alliance debut gets marks for being the promising young cartoonists' first comics story of significant length. That it's a decidedly commercial work rather than something that more directly builds on Davis' well-executed short stories may be vexing for some of those that have been paying attention to her development. On the other hand, that's the marketplace, and more to the point there's a lot of virtue to found in this approach as well. Jess Moynihan's Follow Me is the classic case of a book from a small publisher where about 2/3 of the way through it you might be convinced it's the greatest book you ever read and after you're done you realize you don't see into what the cartoonist was doing with enough to make a strong argument beyond liking it. Amanda Vahaki and Lisa Hanawalt's book were like this for me in 2009 as well. Josh Simmons' self-published Cockbone is a classic split-opinion book. There are sections that seemed obvious, even staged for effect in the way that you can imagine the cartoonist's friends laughing through a private joke or two, but there are also two or three moments of sublime, existential horror. No one mines that more effectively than Simmons, and I don't think the fight for second place is close enough to what Simmons accomplishes with regularity for it to be worth making a list..

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Two Fine Books On The Subject Of Comics

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1. Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist, Herb Block and Harry Katz (WW Norton)

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2. Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, Harvey Kurtzman and Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (Abrams)

I fell very, very behind on my prose about comics this year, but these two books -- the first one through a DVD aid -- have the huge advantage of providing a veritable mountain of material in addition to their focus on a worth subject. It's weird to suggest a couple of books where you could almost have a relationship to the work they present for your consideration completely divorced from the way they're looking at it themselves, but that's publishing in the modern age.

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Best Comics (First Run Or Definitively Collected) Of 2009

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25. Ten Thousand Things To Do, Jesse Reklaw (Self-Published)

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24. Far Arden, Kevin Cannon (Top Shelf)

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23. Prison Pit: Book 1, Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics)

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22. The Mourning Star Volume Two, Kazmir Strzepek (Bodega Distribution)

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21. Cat Burglar Black, Richard Sala (First Second)

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20. Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton (Self-Published)

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19. Vanessa Davis' Cartoons In Tablet, Vanessa Davis (Tablet)

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18. Ti-Girl Adventures, Love and Rockets New Stories #2, Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

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17. Children At Play: A Cul De Sac Collection, Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)

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16. Driven By Lemons, Joshua Cotter (AdHouse Books)

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15. Little Nothings Volume Two: The Prisoner Syndrome, Lewis Trondheim (NBM)

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14. The Squirrel Machine, Hans Rickheit (Fantagraphics)

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13. Bodyworld, Dash Shaw (Self-Published)

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12. Tales Designed to Thrizzle Vol. 1, Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics)

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11. You'll Never Know Book One: A Good and Decent Man, Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics)

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10. Ganges #3, Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics/Coconino)

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9. Gogo Monster, Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz Media)

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8. Parker: The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

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7. Multiforce, Mat Brinkman (PictureBox, Inc.)

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6. A Drifting Life, Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn and Quarterly)

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5. Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon)

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4. George Sprott: 1894-1975, Seth (Drawn and Quarterly)

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3. Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days, Al Columbia (Fantagraphics)

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2. The Book of Genesis Illustrated By R. Crumb, Robert Crumb (WW Norton)

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1. Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco (Metropolitan)

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Notes On Best Comics of 2009

If you're invested in comics and their expansion as a preferred medium of expression for serious, excellent cartoonists, I can't imagine a better capstone to the decade just finished than the late, late December release Footnotes In Gaza. Everything that Sacco, one of the best cartoonists, has come to do well can be found in its pages. Some of the more lacerating asides, like the mother who speaks of watching her child trying to put on pants with one hand, occasionally float to the surface of memory, and I'm not going to shake its central thesis on how tragedy builds on tragedy and the limits of historical inquiry for a long, long time.

Others: I went back and forth on the Crumb after an initial reading, but after subsequent ones I can't figure out why. Genesis seems similar to me in many way to Pim & Francie in terms of accruing power through the quality of drawing stretched across this incredibly sophisticated storytelling framework. I had the opposite reaction with Asterios Polyp that I had to Genesis, and I honestly wish that Mazzucchelli had done more when the book came out to talk about it, because sometimes I'm not as sophisticated a reader as I'd like to be and I could use the help. I suspect that the key to my appreciation for Asterios Polyp will come down to how much some of the surface qualities of the characters as displayed are commentary on their facility. I'm not sure how much I enjoyed A Drifiting Life, but I've never seen a work in any medium capture the dream-like, everything but the guilt goes away quality of creative obsession as effectively as Tatsumi did there. Kate Beaton made the primary list this year for making me laugh more frequently than any cartoonist not named Richard Thompson. I like the way she draws those little, giddy arms. Vanessa Davis's on-line comics evinced a quality greater than the sum of their parts, and if I were a better critic I might be able to put some of that into words. Like Jesse Reklaw's minis, I thought Davis' work presented a world with which I was completely unfamiliar but provided enough specific detail I felt grounded the entire visit. Finally, I thought Kevin Canno's Far Arden received more play for its formal constraints -- its origin as a series of 24-Hour comics, its funny and literal sound effects -- than it did for its world-building and capacity for melancholy.

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A Final Few Notes On Inclusion Issues, Comics I Didn't Read, Etc.

I broke most with critics generally on The Photographer, which is work I failed to enjoy or even admire artistically to such an extent I honestly feel like I'm missing something. If First Second were to send an extraction team to re-program me on the matter, I'd go along just to hear the most convincing argument available to me for the other side. Most of what I read on the work didn't going into the why and how of the superlatives afforded it. Plenty of people liked The Hunter, although through personal conversation and the occasionals essay I've discovered the critics I value most highly didn't seem to enjoy it as much as I did. The question for me wasn't whether or not Cooke's stylized take was the most appropriate imagining an out-of-time bullpen from which to puck any writer and artist, but what Cooke's approach brought to the adaptation. I thought it extremely pleasurable to read. Work like Cooke's and Stark's invites consideration on what sumptuousness in art really means. I also thought Parker observant when it came to the nature of its lead character's shift in attitudes and belief. I look forward to the next in the series.

One prominent alt-comic I ended up not reading, and one that I intended to, was the comics section to the McSweeney's newspaper project San Francisco Panorama.

There were superhero comic books I liked in 2009; I just didn't like any enough to make any of the above lists (I may have to revise my opinion when I double-check on when the Rocketeer collection from IDW came out; I'm not on-line right now with any regularity). New superhero work I liked included Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye, Robert Kirkman's constantly ratcheting-up Invincible and the Brubaker/Fraction books at Marvel. I will also admit that I did not read a ton of manga this year. Extolling the virtues of a quirky mid-list series like Cromartie High School was at one point a few years back can be so rhetorically useful that it's almost worth doing even if you're not fully in support of the comic in question. There are too many manga readers to call me on it if I tried to fake it, though. While I did read a number of mini-comics I may have been reading the wrong ones. I seem to remember a new John Hankiewicz comic I enjoyed, but I wasn't able to find a virtual footprint for it before shutting down the Internet. One general regret I have making this list is that I did so largely without the virtue of on-line access or proximity to my books in the hope that it would disqualify anything that didn't rest firmly in my memory. I know that I enjoyed certain works that came out in the Cold Heat universe, but damned if I can remember what they are. It's a fantastic time for an art form when you can just forget about some of its quality works, and led mostly by continuing booms in archival strip reprints and an expansive, expressive alt- and art-comics milieu, it's clearly a great time for this medium.

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