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March 15, 2009


CR Sunday Feature: Best Of 2008

Archival Editions

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10. Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991, Scott McCloud (HarperCollins)

*****

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9. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories Vol. 2, Edited by Ivan Brunetti (Yale University Press)

*****

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8. Little Orphan Annie Vol. 1, Harold Gray (IDW)

*****

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7. Where Demented Wented, Rory Hayes (Fantagraphics)

*****

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6. Popeye Vol. 3, EC Segar (Fantagraphics)

*****

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5. Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, Edited by Dean Mullaney (IDW)

*****

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4. Moomin Vol. 3, Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

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3. Complete Peanuts Vols. 9-10, Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics)

*****

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2. Explainers, Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics)

*****

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1. Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics)

*****
*****

Notes On Archival Editions, 2008

I didn't give this list as much thought as it probably deserved, and I'm certain there's one or two books I've completely forgotten. The rankings are particularly difficult here, and I'm not sure how seriously you should take them. That understood, there are a few things I hope people take away from the list:

1) Just how strong archival collections are right now. You could read nothing but and have a strongly satisfying relationship with the art form.

2) That the Scorchy Smith book was wonderfully presented. The only reason it doesn't rate higher on my list is because I don't feel the comics work itself is as strong as some of the other comics listed. In fact, I think some of the work ranked behind it on the list is stronger, too, but Scorchy Smith vaults ahead of them because of the aforementioned presentation.

3) That Scott McCloud's Zot! is one of the dozen or so best superhero works. It's also one of the few ones on that list that can be defined in part as covering different thematic territory than most comics within that genre. I continue to like it more than I suspect its author might.

4) A greater appreciation of that Mauldin book. I like Bill Mauldin's cartoons better than most people I know like them. While I'm not always sure why, I trust my instincts that they're great comics in addition to being fun, trenchant cultural history. Taking a bunch of the cartoons in at once communicates something to me sad and grand and specific to the American participation in World War II, a sense of standing up on the world stage and all the ridiculousness that comes with processing the costs. That said, the greatest joy of the Mauldin book is how complete it is, including material I didn't think anyone would ever see again. If this book had come out in 1980 when more of its target audience was alive and acquiring books it might have sold as many copies as the Blackbeard Smithsonian comic strip collection, generating as many fond memories.

*****
*****
*****

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

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7. Che: A Graphic Biography, Spain Rodriguez (Verso Books)

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6. Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

*****

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5. Kate Beaton's On-Line Comics (Self-Published)

*****

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4. Dororo Vols 1-3, Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)

*****

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3. Thoreau at Walden, John Porcellino (Hyperion)

*****

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2. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, Derf (SLG)

*****

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1. Low Moon, Jason (New York Times Sunday Magazine)

*****
*****

Notes On Books That Deserved More Attention, 2008

I thought Swallow Me Whole was Top Shelf's best book of 2008 -- just with the Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell they have planned their 2009 should be that company's best year ever -- and a fine longer narrative debut in a year that saw about a half dozen solid comics-with-a-spine debuts from younger cartoonists (Cotter, Shaw, Tamaki/Tamaki, Ellsworth all spring to mind. I'm certain I'm forgetting at least one other.). Osamu Tezuka's Dororo I preferred to the same comics legend's Black Jack by about a factor of a billion, and I'd prefer a world where the attention paid to each project were flipped. The Derf I didn't like as much as some people did, but there's some lovely cartooning there and the book is enough of a crowd-pleaser I wonder why there wasn't a bigger crowd. Kate Beaton is very funny; I haven't read a lot of her work yet, but I think it may be very good. It's not like people haven't noticed her work but I'm not sure that it's been given its specific due beyond genial thumbs-up. The Thoreau at Walden book I put there not because I think it's John Porcellino's best work but because it's almost like the book didn't come out for the widespread silence in comics circles that greeted its publication. Che I didn't like enough for it to get within shouting distance of the top 25, but there aren't a lot of cartoonists from Spain's generation still creating original work and I wish we'd heard more about this book on that basis alone. I heard even less about Jason's New York Times comic, which I thought was highly amusing and flattered that particular, sometimes dour platform with its deadpan silliness.

*****
*****
*****

Best Books On The Subject Of Comics

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Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester, Bob Levin (Fantagraphics)

This is the easiest category of the year, because Bob Levin's book on "Chester the Molester" cartoonist Dwaine Tinsley and the harrowing legal troubles he faced was by itself worth every other word written about comics last year, on-line and in print, combined. It is the best book ever written about a cartoonist. It kills me that he can't break into four figures in terms of books sold on this one. If you can handle adult subject matter -- and this book involves some deeply adult subject matter without the comfort of Levin taking an easy to parse position on what any of it means -- please give his book a try.

*****
*****
*****

Best Comics (First Run, First Translated, Definitively Collected) Of 2008

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25. All-Star Superman #10, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (DC Comics)

*****

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24. Capacity, Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres)

*****

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23. Skyscrapers of the Midwest, Josh Cotter (AdHouse)

*****

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22. Little Nothings, Lewis Trondheim (NBM)

*****

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21. RASL Volume One: The Drift, Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

*****

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20. Omega: The Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak and Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier and Gary Panter (Marvel)

*****

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19. Fuzz & Pluck: Splitsville, Ted Stearn (Fantagraphics)

*****

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18. Cryptic Wit #2, Gerald Jablonski (Self-Published)

*****

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17. Alan's War, Emmanuel Guibert (First Second)

*****

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16. Burma Chronicles, Guy Deslisle (Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

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15. Bottomless Belly Button, Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics)

*****

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14. Kramer's Ergot Vol. 7, Various (Buenaventura Press)

*****

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13. Powr Mastrs Vol. 2, C.F. (PictureBox)

*****

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12. Sammy the Mouse #2, Zak Sally (Fantagraphics)

*****

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11. Good-Bye, Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn and Quarterly)

*****

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10. Mister Wonderful, Daniel Clowes (New York Times Sunday Magazine)

*****

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9. Achewood Volume One: The Great Outdoor Fight, Chris Onstad (Dark Horse)

*****

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8. Travel, Yuichi Yokohoma (PictureBox)

*****

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7. Speak Of The Devil, Gilbert Hernandez (Dark Horse)

*****

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6. Chechen War, Chechen Women, I Live Here, Joe Sacco (Pantheon)

*****

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5. Cul-De-Sac: This Exit, Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)

*****

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4. Ganges #2, Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics/Coconino)

*****

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3. What It Is, Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

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2. The Wonder: Portraits of a Remembered City Volumes 1-3 Collected, Tony Fitzpatrick (Last Gasp)

*****

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1. Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (Self-Published)

*****
*****

Notes On Best Comics of 2008

I had a difficult time compiling this list. It is much more fluid than I would have thought possible. I can imagine just about all of the top 10 taking turns at #1 were I to spend any more time thinking of the year just past, and I can see everything from 10-20 raiding the top 10 or dropping out altogether. My fear is that I've just become a lazy critic, unable and perhaps unwilling to make the tougher distinctions required by the art form right now.

There wasn't a lot of memorable writing about comics in 2008, and I thought a number of this year's best-of lists in particular seemed to be exercises in looking good making best-of lists more than they seemed the end result of direct, honest engagement with the art form. As a group, writers about comics in 2008 expended more energy giving writers like Grant Morrison the most flattering read possible and then castigating those who don't agree on a scale of how much they "get it" or "don't get it" than they spent, say, diving into the particulars of Lynda Barry's collage-influenced style or making the case by reading his work across various publications how Kevin Huizenga's 2008 was even stronger than it first appears (he's the cartoonist of the year, clearly). One thing that sticks out is I can't remember reading a single review of Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 that explored with enthusiasm and clarity the work itself. What's frustrating about that is that KE7 was, I thought, a great book that managed to hit its mark while offering remarkable and one-of-a-kind work and, at the same time, some completely not-good offerings. But you know what? I didn't write any of those reviews, either.

Among the things I'd like you to consider taking away from this year's Best-Of list are:

1) An appreciation for Chris Ware's latest single issue of ACME, which was so precise and perfectly constructed yet also compelling as raw narrative as to shame a lot of the other work out there. It's the first comic in a while where I felt its impact as much as I read what it had to say and took meaning from it. It was so great to read a comic that demanded things from you.

2) How good Kevin Huizenga's become how relatively quickly. He's the real deal.

3) A potential acknowledgment or at least exploration of painter Tony Fitzpatrick's work as comics narrative. The Wonder is Fitzpatrick's three-volume walk through the Chicago of his dead father, collected and slip-cased this year. Fitzpatrick doesn't consider his work comics in any way. I think he's wrong. What some people including Fitzpatrick see as a series of paintings that incorporates text, I see as that and as a series of verbal-visual blend artistic moments organized into sequential form by their attention to a larger theme. The novelty of viewing this kind of work as comics wouldn't bring it to this list, but Fitzpatrick's particular exploration is frequently beautiful and haunting, a desperate scramble after a world that's disappeared in the last quarter century without mourners.

4) A renewed interest in Richard Thompson's comic strips. It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of this site that I adore Richard Thompson's comics, and to watch Cul De Sac trying to scale the heights of a system that's in the midst of an outright collapse troubles me, perhaps more than I'd care to admit during day-in, day-out coverage of its journey.

5) Greater regular attention to Joe Sacco's very good short stories year to year. I thought this latest one a gem, deliberate and painstakingly observed.

6) Respect for future greatest living cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez. The Speak of the Devil entry here indicates the serial that concluded in 2008 rather than the collection published subsequently. Gilbert Hernandez's hypnotic, grisly story used the time between issues as a giant panel filled with darkness between installments of its twisted narrative. That comic made my stomach hurt, and I have a sense that it may be one of the last of its kind.

7) Recognition that Marvel's unlikely marriage of author, alt-comics artists and the work of Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes worked out fairly well. I thought the Omega The Unknown series unfairly dismissed, or just little discussed or maybe just not engaged in the way that a lot of duller works even within that same genre were routinely appreciated this year. I thought there was a lot of value in its careful meditation on the original '70s comics and themes like coming to grips with commercial forces as both potentially devastating and a key to forming a self-identity. I thought it was really attractive, too, in a way that had nothing to do with comics of that era but also encapsulated those comics' blend of immediate physical presence and over-ripe atmosphere.

8) A greater appreciation for comics' visual qualities. I know how strange this sounds given how many people see comics solely as vehicles for a certain kind of art, but that's been a long time coming for me. One of the few things I do more effectively than I used to is process the visual appeal of a comic I'm reading, to the point that there are at least two works on this list that likely wouldn't be on it at all if I were reading all of this year's books five years ago.

All in all, I thought it was a very good year.

*****
*****
*****

A Final Few Notes On Inclusion

1) Gary Panter I enjoyed quite a bit, but I see that as an art book.
2) I failed to secure copies of a number of books, including Breakdowns, Love & Rockets: New Stories #1, Criminal, the latest Canicola and Mat Brinkman's effort with Le Dernier Cri. If I read those and like them better I'll change the list. Robert Boyd has since reminded me I also haven't seen the Terry and the Pirates books.
3) Tamara Drewe I presently consider a 2007 work.
4) Bodyworld I presently consider a 2009 work.
5) I have a sneaking suspicion that I might like one of the Cold Heat supplementary offerings as much as some of the work in my top 25, but I'm waiting to read them. If one of them does make that impression on me I'll add them and delete this note
6) I'm allowed to take one mulligan, and this year that's The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard.
7) Looking at this list at 6 AM, I realize I forgot the Blank Slate books. I didn't care for the Mawil enough it would merit consideration, but I should have re-read the Oliver East book and will. At that point I'll delete this note and make any changes I need to above.

*****
*****
*****
*****
 
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