Monday, 23 December 2013

Signing off 2013

Holiday season is upon us, so the blog will be back on the 1st of January with a new and improved schedule and regular features (to go along with the shiny new domain), fingers crossed. In the meantime, I only started giving this blog some real attention this past 3 months and have genuinely been overwhelmed by the response; thank you to each and every one of you who has visited or supported it any manner- I sincerely appreciate it more than I can express. Have a great break, and see you in 2014!

P.S. I'll be doing a year in review article on The Beat in early Jan, and, all being well, a holiday interview with CR, hence saving the longer reflections to avoid repetition- not getting out of it, I promise! 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Joshua Shepherd's No 1 Hitman: a blogging hero

Thought Bubble was a mad rush this year, but luckily I had back-up, with Jared (my boss at OK Comics) picking up lots of comics for the store, which I then proceeded to nick off him. One of these was Joshua Shepherd's No 1 Hitman, a tiny, warmth-inducing treasure. I have to admit I'm not entirely sold on coloured pencil comics -Brian Fukushima does some nice ones- but overall they feel a bit ineffectual, and I absolutely abhor the ones where you can barely make out the art or lettering. The line between deliberate naivete and messiness is often easily crossed. I enjoy being won around though, and No I Hitman, and Shepherd's work has helped me forwards towards that.

Hitman works much better in print, the tangible smallness of it, the physicality is part of its appeal and aesthetic. A rotund little dude taps away on his computer, busily blogging away, of which consequences lead to a Rambo-samurai Hitman landing in his backyard and challenging him to a duel. I like the punchiness of the pace, the beats between the sparse dialogue, and the clarity and spacial layout of the drawings and panels. It works better also for not being drowned in backgrounds and colours; the manner in which the framing of images in border-less panels, boxed ones, or mini splash pages with one focal point, have been thought out is great. The whole things is beautifully executed, simple but totally effective, and I was completely charmed by it. 

You can read the whole of No 1 Hitman for free, here, or if you want a physical copy, I have a couple to give away, just send me an email at (worldwide postage). Below's a quick few questions with Mr Shepherd himself.

I've seen a more poeple doing comics with coloured pencils- still unsure how I feel about them. Why do you use them, or like using them?
I've always felt more confident in my penciling than I have in my inking, I feel like I mess up a lot when I ink and there's kind of less of that fear with colour pencils. I think I'd like to do more.

What are you working on at the moment/what's next from you? 
I'm currently working on a submission for the Vertebrae Guro Anthology which should hopefully be getting Kickstarted in February. After that I have a couple of personal comics I want to start working on, one loosely based on an old superstition about feeding a dog the hair of a sick man so that he passes his cold on to the dog.

Name 3 things you love (yes, love, not feel weakly about) about comics- can be anything from creators, to lettering.
There's so many cool things about comics it's hard to nail down specific things. I guess I really love cartoon physics in comics and I'm a total sucker for print quality and comics with limited colour palettes. 

Which British creators are you excited about right now?  
I'm really excited for anything Isaac (Lenkiewicz) does. I met Jack Teagle and Donya Todd at Thought Bubble this year and I'm pretty excited to see more from them, especially their collab comics.

Please can we have a Hitman sequel? 
I have actually thought of doing a sequel! I have a couple of other hitmen characters I'd like him to encounter. One of them is actually a recycled character that I came up with when I was 14 who had the power of being covered in tremendous amounts of acne that made him bulk up like the Hulk. I was very into Ren and Stimpy style gross out humour and I guess I still am.

Favorite food?
I usually say pizza but I've been eating a lot of chicken and bacon ranches from Subway lately.

You can find Josh's Tumblr here

An early, Play-Do incarnation of Number 1

Thursday, 19 December 2013

In praise of: James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War

A couple of disclaimers before we start: 1) It is impossible to put into words the unfettered wonderment that James Stokoe's art begets. Hence every time I use an inadequate superlative, bear in mind that it is sadly incapable of fulfilling its basic function and multiply any effect it may have by at least 4- yes, let' go with 4. 2) This piece is spoilery, if you haven't read the book yet. There's not a huge 'this way or that way' in terms of plot, but events do go in particular directions, and knowing that in advance may affect your enjoyment of the story.

Chances are you've probably heard something about James Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War. I certainly had, in the peripheral manner in which you can be aware of things being talked about on the internet: a tweet here, a glanced at headline there. My love of dinosaurs, beasts and monsters is deep, long-standing, and frankly, a bit weird, so the book was on my radar, but I tried not to read anything in relation to it because I'm a trade-waiter, and because I'm always a little wary of books which come with a high degree of pre-hype baggage; finding that despite my attempts to remain neutral, I begin to attach expectations to them which are then not always met. Anyhow- Godzilla was released as a 5 issue miniseries between August 2012 and February 2013, with IDW collecting and publishing the trade paperback in June this year. It's a singularly outstanding piece of work by Stokoe (on writing and art duties) and a superb comic, conceived and finished, remember, before the release of Pacific Rim and the supplanting of kawai by kaiju as the one Japanese word of which the west is aware and will use, misuse and abuse for the next 3 years or so.

Stokoe succeeds in 2 main ways with Godzilla: he understands fundamentally that when people read Godzilla, they want Godzilla. They want rampages. They want huge monsters, amazing, ferocious looking creatures doing battle. They want terror and wonder. Stokoe gets that. He gets that need for spectacle -spectacle to which his art is uniquely tailored, offsetting what can be a shallow function: clobbering beasts, and lends it depth and emotion in it's staggering ability, delivering wonderment in the truckload. You may not care about stomping over-sized creatures, but I dare you not to care about the mastery offered up on the page. He gets that the focal character of a Godzilla comic should be Godzilla. At the same time, a certain consideration for the human element is required; you could have a superb Age of Reptiles-style silent comic of Godzilla roaming the Earth and destroying city after city in inevitable annihilation of man's comeuppance, but you need some sort of anchor for the reader to side with, someone with whom to look up and gaze in awe, someone who is guiding, rooting, articulating. To convey the magnitude of a gargantuan, uncontrollable radioactive beast on Earth you have to provide scale, to juxtapose him against something smaller, something intrinsically different in nature, which is where man comes in. 

A lot of the time, I feel the human element is where 'monster' books go wrong: making the reactions of people the focal point, when we all know where that path leads- monster arrives on scene, destroys,  masses screaming, military bomb/tank it and so forth. In Ota Murakami, Stokoe presents a reader golem around whose life- from 20-something soldier to death- the narrative is framed. 23 months into his enlistment, Ota is having a quiet fag atop a tank with his platoon, having been mysteriously advised to expect 'bad weather', when Godzilla makes himself known to the world.

'Bad weather'

I love the above sequence: it's astoundingly executed, in terms of panels and pacing. Ota with an outstretched palm, the trio of tanks screeching to a halt, tight panel of anticipatory expressions and then a half-page in which Godzilla's foot coming into shot (look how tiny those cars look) and the emotions on Ota's face just changing completely. It's laid out so that it's on the turn of the page, which opens into the  balls-out double page spread (directly above) where we get to see Godzilla in full resplendence for the first time. The blast and heat of his roar is brilliantly personified in the lettering- the sharp edges and size of the looming almost-letters connoting the raw alien-ness of the sound and it's sheer volume. It's an awesome introduction.

Stokoe makes the narrative both big and small: relate-able on a personal level without diminishing or reducing the focus of Godzilla. Ota's brush with Godzilla marks the beginning of what it is to be a globe-spanning tussle to contain and suppress the beast, as he becomes the go-to guy for dealing with Godzilla, heading  up a special task force to try and predict his movements and attacks. Ota journeys from stunned awe, to relishing their encounters to tired resignation to anger as he increasingly concedes to the realisation that there will be no winning, that men will come and go but Godzilla will outlast them, that the world is irrevocably changed. What barometer do you use to for self-significance in the face of such uncontrollable forces  -Ota ends up using Godzilla and it defines him to the point of existentialism: the world -the animal- is indifferent, incapable of comprehension, he sits tired and bandaged repeatedly in the forefront as the monsters battle on the horizon. His final showdown is a bid to prove that he matters, a heart-breaking demand for acknowledgement in the wind to the beast upon whom he has spent a lifetime 'Look at me! look at me you damn monster!', a beast who cannot understand him. I love that Stokoe allows Godzilla to be Godzilla, an animal who acts upon instinct for survival, an intelligent animal, but still an animal, there's no scholcky moment of empathy, no deeper meaning, no understanding. I like realism: he is what he is- very much an other. Ota knows that, 'He's become a natural balance to this world, and how can you give nature intention?' knows that Godzilla is simply being, and when all is said and done he doesn't really have any regrets.

For me, one of the issues creature features struggle with is impact. Broadly, it's usually shown in two ways: physical impact- depicted via size, building smashing, and the generic scenario of humans banding together and overcoming (purported emotional impact). The latter negates the former to an extent, nullifying the power of the beast to a significant degree. The notion of 'overcoming,' the triumph of will and human pluckiness, of winning, is a very American ideal. Stokoe's Godzilla, however, is set in Japan initially with a Japanese protagonist and crew, and for me, it's a crucial viewpoint, freeing the story from any pre-conceived expectations. Stokoe does something special in delivering a telescopic narrative with Ota's life serving as the small lens through which the larger impact of Godzilla's presence is reiterated.  It's difficult and tricky and Stokoe manages it cleverly, and in a very real way- transposing a whole lifetime against the unmoving, unchangeable Godzilla. He balances it beautifully too, with a good battle or monster scene never too far away.

Stokoe's trademark style is hyper-detailed, hyper-coloured- from what I've seen, he employs a slightly looser, more thicker line in Orc Stain, here it's finer- detailed and intricate, the manner in which he's able to render texture so forcibly, the spikes and claws, the roughness of hide is astonishing (he also sometimes seems to use thicker lines in the foreground and finer in the back to emaphsise perspective). The intensity of the detail adds a ton of weight, adding to that clumping, lumbering, realsim. Coming back to Pacific Rim, one of things that impressed me there was how the robots and beasts were portrayed, huge and heavy (as multi-ton machines and animals would be), their movements leaning towards the slow and ponderous rather than the zippy. Stokoe conveys that heavy grounded-ness really well. Another aspect I find interesting in Godzilla, and which contributes to the 'realism' is how the beasts are so meticulously and believably rendered, and the people cartoony, a juxtaposition that also reinforces the 'other' nature of the creatures and invites the reader to interface with Ota and co. 

I'm unsure how I feel about Stokoe's signature colour palette- it's highly distinctive, almost fluorescent and mostly gradients of achy pinks and lime greens which makes things look fleshy and bloody and raw- all pus and bodily fluids. It gives a sense of heat and danger too, which is perfect for blood and  battle, for war, for jungle foliage- I guess it works to establish a particular enclosed world- in that's it quite oppressive in it's relentlessness- I think it was Brandon Graham  who once wrote that Stokoe's colouring- 'he uses more gradients in a single panel than I've done in my entire coloring life. But it works.' And it does. There's not a lot of white in Stokoe's art, which makes it all the more pointed when it does appear- the final showdown in Antarctica is gloriously stunning. There are stretches in Godzilla of wordless fight sequences between monsters where the potential to be stiff and staid is ripe, but in which Stokoe invokes dynamism through a shit tonne of motion lines and clouds. I have no idea why there are so many dust/explosion/rubble/snow clouds but they look the business. And sometimes it's enough to be offered something different. 

You see how Godzilla's blue-hued in the panel immediately above? I like the thought that's gone into touches like that- I always forget that Godzilla's an aquatic dwelling beast- that's where he lives and comes from, and those icy, translucent spikes are a smart reminder. But I wanted to talk briefly about lettering and SFX before wrapping up. I don't know that comics is seeing more art that obviously takes stylistic and technical inspiration from comicking traditions around the world, but Stokoe's a good example, I think. Here he pulls together SFX which is pretty dead in European comics and now largely a Japanese conceit, with  a bande dessinne, font style- very Neil Hyslop in derivation, though all in caps with the thick black exclamation/question marks, and bolded shouty writing- a more stylised iteration (I've included a page from Tintin for comparison). I think that European/Japanese influence/leaning extends to his depiction of human characters, with elements of manga features paired with a more streamlined, refined approach. I wish we saw more of that taking and mixing.

I hope I've gotten across some of what makes Stokoe's Godzilla mini-series such an achievement: yes his art is amazing, the story is entertaining and engaging, but I'd also like to point out that he's produced something that respects and references a shedload of cultural back-matter and iconography (with over 28 Japanese films, books, TV series, video games etc) , which is still intelligible to audiences who may not be even the slightest bit familiar with the history. but Stokoe's produced a book that references those texts without being exclusive. 

I read Battling Boy earlier in the year, and great art aside, I  thought it was a pretty mediocre book. I'm not so arrogant that I think the many people who enjoyed it wrong, but one thing I found, was that a number of people who enjoyed it did so due to it harking back to silver and golden age stories and artists of whom I've never heard, with Pope talking about how Battling Boy's dad was based on some dude from some old comic. I came into comics late, so I don't have those points of reference- as don't a lot of people- but regardless a fundamental tenet of a text is its stand alone accessibility. Any inter-textual or historical references should be an additional layer from which the reader gains pleasure through recognition, not a crutch on which the narrative relies. Which is why I think Stokoe is to be applauded all the more for creating a superb book that exemplifies comics at its purest. The highest compliment I can pay any book is envying those who are yet to read it. If you haven't read Godzilla: The Half Century War, I truly envy you. I envy you hard.

Related extrasThis is how James Stokoe holds a pen:

This is what that produces (tis the darkest kind of magic):

That page is an homage of sorts to the many Godzilla films and the various monsters that have featured in them. I came across some interesting behind-the-scenes photos from those movies which I thought it'd be fun to include here (via):

And some Godzilla anatomy (via): 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Something pretty: Darwyn Cooke's Parker: Slayground

I'm not sure that Darwyn Cooke's Parker adaptations require further promotion as it seems everyone already knows and loves them, but the latest one, Slayground released last Wednesday (probably the last 'profile' release of 2013) and it's another winner. If you have never heard of Parker before, he is a character with a series of prose books written by Richard Stark (pseudonym of Donald Westlake), in the hard-boiled crime noir, Chandler tradition, the difference being that instead of being your world-weary-moral-line-toeing-but-essentially-good PI detective, Parker is a thief and crook, an anti-hero. 

Cooke has been adapting these books into gorgeous, hardback, two-coloured comic volumes since 2009 with publishers IDW, with Slayground the fourth in the series (although each book stands alone). His ridiculously good-looking retro-cartoony leaning art is a suitably stylish foil to the square-jawed, sharp suited, cigars and alcohol vibe of the 60/70's era setting.  I'm a huge fan of crime noir- Raymond Chandler, Robert B Parker, Dashiell Hammett- so I guess I'm more ready to be pleased with what's on offer here, but to dismiss these as genre stories is folly; Cooke's cartooning and his source material have melded together to create something  classy and wonderfully good. Here, read this 8-page opening preview first (via Comics Alliance), and then I'll talk a little bit more about it (nothing spoliery, have no fear).

Monday, 16 December 2013

Happy Birthday, Tom Spurgeon!

Tom Spurgeon always does these 'Happy Birthday' features for comics figures on his site, The Comics Reporter, so I thought it'd be nice to do one for him on his birthday. I was going to talk a little about what his work means to me, but I always end up blathering about myself, and I'd like to keep this about Tom. 

As I have found in the last 3 months with my own shoddy efforts, maintaining a website that updates daily on your own is bloody hard work, even putting up fluff pieces, but with The Comics Reporter, Tom provides a service to comics truly unlike anyone else: he has news, announcements, reviews, stupendously thorough con reports, and all the usual trappings, but what's invaluable is the knowledge he brings to the commentary he provides alongside these articles, breaking down events and goings on in thoughtful and dispensable chunks. While he may joke about it on Twitter, a major reasons he's one of the most respected people in comics is the sincere, unpatronising widespread coverage of genres and areas, and which has helped The Comics Reporter stay relevant (say over The Comics Journal, which, to my mind, isn't as accessible to people). For comics fans, creators and writers, The Comics Reporter remains a barometer of quality- the site to aspire to, and as it's his birthday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to say a big thank you for all that he does. 

As the kids say, Tom: mad props, and a very happy birthday.

Notable Comics of 2013: part 2

Last Monday I published the first installment of Notable Comics of 2013, as chosen by various comics luminaries. The idea was to present an alternative to the many 'best of' lists that crop up around this time of year, and as promised, here's the concluding part, which, for some reason, features many people picking two comics instead of one. Being the kind soul that I am, I've allowed it (and hey, it's more interesting comics). To quickly recap the specifications people were given: write about one comic released/published in 2013- digital, online, print, including first-time translations and collections, but not reprints., with a word count of 150-500 words. Once again, I'd like to extend a huge thank you to all who have taken the time to write something, it's been a genuine honour to have people whose work and writing I admire on my blog. So without further ado:

Clark  Burscough (assistant director of Thought Bubble): Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake  written and illustrated by Natasha Allegri, and coloured by Patrick Seery

For a fan of fun (silly) animations, 2013 has been something of a banner year, with cartoons like Adventure Time and Regular Show continuing their upward trajectory, and new favourites such as Gravity Falls, Bee & Puppycat, and Steven Universe seemingly springing out of nowhere. With these comes a fresh crop of comic tie-ins, a staple of the medium since the days of early Disney funny books, including, my favourite, Carl Barks’ classic Donald Duck gag strips.

The modern iterations of these transfers from screen to paper are to be lauded, for me, for two reasons: first, they’re bringing high-quality, regularly published, all-ages comics to the stands at a time when a lot of the mainstream is tending towards more graphic, adult stories and gritty re-imaginings, potentially neglecting the vital youth audience; and second, they’re providing regular paying gigs for some of the shining stars of indie comics. All of which is an astonishingly long preamble to me saying that my pick for 2013 is the superlative Adventure Time with Fionna & Cake collection, published by KaBoom! Studios, written and illustrated by Natasha Allegri, and coloured by Patrick Seery.

I’m a big fan of the expanded universe publications that have stemmed from Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time, as they represent to me a fresh renaissance of comics that, while ostensibly silly and childlike on the surface, act as a perfect representative of a show which has a great deal of heart and talent at its core, and has made the difficult crossover from cult curio to cultural phenomena. Fionna & Cake is one of the more interesting of the current batch of illustrated tie-ins, as it stems from the online tradition of gender-swapped fan-fiction - the characters that these comics focus on appear in only two episodes of the cartoon itself, and yet inhabit a world as fully formed as the main series, as all that’s changed is the cast’s genders and, occasionally, species. Adventure Time’s titular characters Finn the human and Jake the dog become Fionna the human and Cake the Cat, series villain Ice King becomes Ice Queen, and chaotic good companion Marceline the Vampire Queen becomes Marshall Lee the Vampire King. Adventure Time’s regular cast is fairly gender balanced as it stands, but this swaps roles in such a way that the heroes of the story are all female working to save their male compatriots, which is something to be celebrated, I feel.

I think the reason I love this collection so much, besides the goofy humour and the nods to the online fandom, is that it’s one of the best looking books I’ve seen in a good long while. As is appropriate, the artwork has a psychedelic, dream-like quality, and the comic timing serves the jokes well. Special mention should also be made of Britt Wilson’s lettering, which helps serve the fairy tale quality of the comic, without ever becoming too intrusive. Overall, in a bumper year for exciting all-ages comics, this is the one I’d single out and recommend.

Julia Scheele (cartoonist): Treasure Island part one by Connor Willumsen from Breakdown Press

Writing this has been a challenge, since I haven't read as many comics this year as I feel I should have done. But as soon as I picked up Treasure Island at my favourite convention, Thought Bubble, I knew it would be one of my favourites of the year.

I hadn't read any Connor Willumsen before, but I know he's drawn for Marvel's Punisher. I still find that somewhat unbelievable; I've read enough Punisher comics to place this offering on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Anyway, Treasure Island, Part One, is about Dr. Joy, a hands-on, no-nonsense, weight-pumping "Field Researcher and Cultural Anthropologist", and her Research Assistant, Doug, a vaguely smarmy, Yoga-practicing hippie washout kinda dude, living on a secluded island and working on a mysterious, possibly government-funded project (there are grumpy men in suits they Skype over budget problems). They also have a dog, named either Krisp or Dutchy or both, billed as "smart dog" and inexplicably but charmingly wearing a pointed hat.

The Treasure Island location provides the perfect setting for these two very different characters to bounce off each other. Willumsen writes naturalistic, effortless dialogue which betrays the simplicity of the story, while making you realise how well-rounded and thought-out these characters really are. The exoticness of the setting plays wonderfully against the mundanity of their interactions, and the inclusion of modern technology in their day-to-day life (Skype, social media, instantaneous movie streaming on a weed-induced whim) is something that is rarely dealt with in such an un-showy manner, giving this strange little story an injection of familiarity and realism.

Willumsen's cartooning is a joy. His characters are simple, yet he obviously draws from a strong basis of gesture and figure work. His panels are fairly traditional grids, but he's creative with them. In the sequence where Joy and Doug watch Independence Day, for instance, the panels go completely black leaving only Joy's head floating in the middle, showcasing her facial expressions, while the dialogue of the film crowds around her claustrophobically.

The printing by Victory Press needs to be mentioned here, too, the bright green ink contrasts with the yellow paper, giving the whole thing an almost otherworldly feel. Also: rounded corners. Man, am I a sucker for rounded corners!

All of the new Breakdown Press offerings are a delight and I enjoyed all of them (especially J.1137 by Antoine Cosse), but I really loved this first part of Treasure Island. It had a depth to it which made it stand out to me the most. I highly recommend it - even though absolutely nothing will prepare you for the mad final sequence.

Sam Alden (cartoonist): Toormina Video by Pat Grant

So the comic that I've thought about the most this year was probably Toormina Video, by Pat Grant. If you haven't read it, it's a short story about Pat's relationship with his alcoholic father, who died while he was drawing it I think? What really makes Toormina Video work for me is that he's dealing with this big, messy subject matter, but he keeps his storytelling very reigned in, and allows all the weight of it to come out through implication. The central image of the piece is of a young Pat sitting in a parked car, waiting for his dad to get out of the bar, which is just such a quiet tragedy of a situation. And there's a thread of gentle humor running through this comic, and even nostalgia, which simultaneously keeps it readable and makes the emotional stuff hit even harder.  It's also a real feat of narrative condensation: a very short comic that weaves in and out of anecdote, synopsis, and dream sequence without ever giving you whiplash. Each story element is foreshadowed, introduced, and revisited with this very writerly structure in mind. I don't feel very articulate about this next point, but I want to say the tight control Pat has over this story seems to me like an important step in his own emotional processing, and it's satisfying to watch him apply a writer's toolkit to his own problems, and so masterfully. So yeah, good comic Pat! You can read the whole thing online here.

Cathy G. Johnson is a cartoonist living and working in Providence, RI – where I went to college (we bonded over PVD at a con once) – and I think the first comic of hers I read was "Her Name Was Prudence," a story about relationships, literature, sex, communication... beautifully rendered in graphite. I'm generally a big fan of comics done in pencil, especially if they sort of mimic vision in motion by blurring out peripheral details, and hint at process by showing semi-erased leftovers.

I've read many many pages of comics this year but Cathy's black-and-white 9-pager behind every young girl's arse... has really stuck with me, and I've thought about it regularly since I first read it. Her rough pencils perfectly evoke a pitch-black night, with a fire throwing thick shadows over contorted forms. The story is brief but it hits like a heavy hammer – full of monumental desperation and rage. Even little meta-details – like shadows of other pages showing through the paper – or a format-breaking list of potential "reactions" that could easily be Cathy's own, in her sketchbook – drive home the raw weight of this narrative. The story is bookended by two contrasting images of a naked woman, and since I have reread this story countless times in the past few months, I have compared those images again and again. My experience of this comic is cyclical. It feels like a colossal turning wheel.

behind every young girl's arse... is published in tandem with the also excellent Until It Runs Clear in a single zine, for sale online. Her incredible watercolor webcomic Jeremiah was also collected and published this year.

Alex Degen's 6-part sci-fi epic Mighty Star began and ended in 2013 over on the wonderful webcomic site Study Group. I rarely read webcomics because it's hard for me to follow and keep up with them, but in this case Mighty Star's format really clicked for me, possibly because the comic has strong overtones of an old-school action serial ("last week, on Mighty Star...").

AD has an incredible sense of pacing and structure – everything feels precise and intentional... his stories deal a lot with conspiracies, hidden machinations, mythologies, rituals, complex machinery, and divine plans, and his visual style goes hand in hand with these narrative conceits. He's a master of visual hierarchy, character design, and complex but engaging layouts. Each chapter is meticulously planned and balanced – with operatic acts, surging arcs, and an unreasonably charming dramatis personæ at the start of each episode.

Another thing I really love about a lot (maybe most? maybe all?) of AD's work: the lack of dialogue. He's so skilled at symbolism and clear cartooning that speech would be superfluous, and I love that I feel compelled to sit up and pay attention to every minor (inevitably significant) detail. He does use single consonants (alone or in strings) as onomatopoeia, which has a brutal visual effect that I especially like. It's hard to compare anything to AD's style because it's so unique, but I see some parallels with works like Metropolis – sci-fi realities that require very little narration or explanation in order to establish and maintain their internal consistency... these realities feel commanding, profound, and haunting. Mighty Star is a great example of why I always leap to read whatever AD posts – I know it'll be brilliant.

His excellent AREACC is back in print this year, and I also loved his comic for Jeans #2.

Sean T Collins (writer/journalist): Exorcise Book by Heather Benjamin (A Bohla Editora) / Habit #1 by Josh Simmons (Oily Comics)

"….NOT FOR THE TIMID" reads a fluorescent orange sticker slapped on the parodically staid cover of Exorcise Book, Heather Benjamin's second major collection of drawings. Not from the timid, either. On page after page Benjamin appears compelled to share her vision of the world and the human female bodies that inhabit it with anyone who cares/dares to look—a vision captured through eyeballs extruded from sockets on long feathery vine-like stalks or gushing blood and tears. You can rattle off the SAT-word descriptors of her trademarks and call it a day if you want: sanguine, lachrymose, hirsute, abject. But Benjamin's chops are far too considerable for her tropes to be taken for tics. She can draw hair like a pin-up artist and splatter like a Fort Thunder refugee, and her compositional strengths are extraordinary, particularly when seen one immaculately laid-out image after another in a collection like this. She  could draw anything she wants. She must draw this. This book demands integrity and clarity of vision from any artist who encounters it.

Josh Simmons is a tonally similar artist, but at this point he's been making comics long enough that the evident darkness of his outlook abrogates the need for the taboo-fucking gore for which he became known. "Seaside Home," the lead-off story in this one-man anthology Habit #1, is Simmons's most nihilistic and melancholy work to date, which is saying quite a bit. Combining several of his strengths—depicting the interior and exterior of large buildings, locating horror in failed families, burying pages in debris—it tells the story of a little girl whose parents are too consumed with their own slow-motion tragedy to see that she's slowly sinking into one as well. That the final, physical violation of this family unit and the home they inhabit is still so obviously upsetting to her—that after all this, she still has a child's shocked disbelief that terrible things really can happen to her and the people who've taught her whatever she knows about love—is so fucking devastating I can hardly stand to think about it, though that doesn't stop me. Compulsively re-reading this thing is a form of self-injury, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay.

Seth T Hahne (comics reviewer) Summit of the Gods by Jiro Taniguchi

Two of my favourite comics of the year seemed particularly invested in drawing me into a deeper, broader, taller appreciation for the natural world. The final volume of Children of the Sea was released in June and I rightly goggled at page after wordless page of Daisuke Igarashi's awestrikingly bountiful illustrations of the deep. Several months later Fanfare/Ponent Mon brought forth the penultimate volume of Summit of the Gods, Yumemakura Baku and Jirô Taniguchi's adventure thriller about mountain climbing, mountain climbers, and a mountain to be climbed.

This fourth volume brings my anticipation for the story's conclusion next year to fevered pitch (to embrace a cliché). The final two-thirds of volume 4 are so good and haunting that I'm nearly angry at myself for beginning the series this year rather than late in the next when I could have spared myself the anxiety of anticipation. Until next year, we're left with our two climbers, perched perilously on the south face of Everest with one prepared to make a miraculous oxygenless solo climb on an impossible track and the other seeming set to die in cold, cold hallucinations. Summit of the Gods is devastatingly thrilling, but to talk about the excitement its plot generates is somewhat to do it disservice.

Jirô Taniguchi is the ideal artist for this work. His perhaps unparalleled ability to communicate the grandeur of an environment turns these several-inch illustrations of various peaks and ice formations into awe-striking glimpses of a world that dwarfs our own. New York City is a teaming hive of the wonder of the human creature, an ode to the potential of the species. But consider Everest, Mont Blanc, K2, Elbrus. Though ants in the form of men do rarely light across their surfaces, these massifs and mountains and tremendous stone faces ridicule human achievement by their immensity—and Taniguchi brings that home. His sense of scale comes through seamlessly, due in part to his intricate linework and in part to his choice of panel sizes. These eruptions scraping from earth to the heavens, by Taniguchi’s pen, are as much characters as the climbers themselves. I believe the work would be lesser in any other hands.

The series has been landmark for me. I harbour no great affection for mountaineering, so I could not have expected the joy of this work. I was so excited, so thoroughly overwhelmed, that I almost did not want to read anything else for some time after. I didn’t want to pollute the holy sacrosanctity of the experience Baku and Taniguchi provided. Months later, I am still haunted by Summit. It’s that good. It’s probably even better than that good—which of course doesn’t actually make much sense but is a fitting way to talk about an experience that’s essentially a bound paper embodiment of the inimitable mystery of the human spirit. Words fail and that feels right and just.

Isaac Lenkiewicz (cartoonist): Rave #1 by Jessica Campbell

I first became aware of Rave when one of the pages was circulating around tumblr, it showed a young girl drawing a topless sailor moon picture then out of embarrassment immediately screwing it up and throwing it the bin. It made me laugh a lot. I later discovered it was being published by Oily Comics as one of their amazing 12 page mini comics. It focusses on a young girl called Mary James, a kind of day in the life thing, showing awkward interactions with other children and the forming of a new friendship.

Jessica has done an amazing job of making her main character likeable and relatable, she does this through the way she draws her expressions and movements. I love it when an artist can accurately represent how weird and cool children are. I'm sure a lot of things in this comic come from Jessica's own experience as a kid, but there are so many things that feel familiar to me from when I was young. I'm really pleased to say this is just number one in an ongoing series, this is my favourite kind of comic and I really can't wait to read more.

Mia Schwartz (cartoonist): Mimi and the Wolves by Alabaster

Alabaster’s stories are these immaculate, kaleidoscopic, jeweled little universes. They read like dollhouses. This is work with its own language, proportion and law so fully realized and sure of itself that you’re never invited to question how real it is. Having been churned through the funny book academia machine, it can be hard to read what your peers are doing without watching yourself in third person, a booming voice echoing “YOU ARE READING A COMIC” and superimposing Frank Santoro illuminati grid-vision to every page. To that her comics yell “EFF THAT” and pull me in feet-first. There’s a leveI of immersion I want to compare to classic children’s literature, but that brings me to something else I really love about this work: This is some of the realest writing about adult relationships you can ask for.

Mimi #1 depicts something distressingly familiar for many creative women - a long term partner who is sweet but fails to appropriately handle his partner's growth and ambition. Wool and Gin examines the mire that surrounds a manipulative and toxic person with a necessary compassion for those who are having difficulty escaping the trap.   Both of these stories celebrate leaving dead weight behind without forgetting the warm bed and cloying, calculated need that make the choice so brave in the first place.   All of this is done without the simmering cynicism, bleakness, and overwrought beat panels that make up the "failing relationship" trope in comics. (Weep, you sad fucker, for the couple that used to spoon now sleep facing away! Here is where I mime puking, bored out of my goddamn mind.)  This isn't to say that these relationships engulf Mimi's entire narrative - it's no coincidence that the power that calls Mimi away from her boyfriend is the Goddess Venus. It's more of a giant middle finger.

Whether you can see yourself in these or not, they remain a great read. Alabaster plays the comic fest tabling game like a warrior queen and leaves you with thoughtfully presented books that you feel good about buying, even just as beautiful objects. This is work that absolutely cannot be slept on and a voice that can only grow bigger and greater. I dare you to become a louder fan than me.

L Nichols (artist): Black Pillars, Issue 1 - Andrew White 

Black Pillars leaves me with the same feeling as when someone interrupts me after I've working intensely on a painting for many hours. There's something in the setting, in the way this issue ends, that leaves me lost in a world of turbulent thoughts, incapable of communicating. The fact that someone else's work can make me feel this way is one of the reasons I loved this comic.

Andrew's use of geometric shapes interjected into more naturalistic drawings is very effective at creating a disjointed and unsettled feeling. Something is off in this world, and even the characters are not quite able to identify what it is. Sure, the black pillars have appeared out of nowhere, but it's not quite their existence that seems to bother the characters. Rather, what seems to concern the characters is the feelings they have while they're around them, the feeling of having their world upturned, the feeling of not knowing. The pillars serve to bring out those feelings. With this, what could very easily veer more towards horror becomes instead a more existential examination.

It was nice to see a comic utilize abstract sequences in a coherent way within a larger narrative. The juxtaposition of abstract sequences with more traditional comics storytelling helps to provide a contrast in tone – internal vs external. The abstract sections also switched to using direct address, “you,” which I found to be particularly jarring (in a good way). Whoever is addressing us is trying to get us to understand something, trying to get inside our heads, trying to get us to see what we cannot see.

The book closes on one of these abstract sections. I think this is why I am always left after reading this comic with that feeling of trying to find something I can't find, of being lost in thought. I can't wait for the second (and final) issue to come out. I wonder if my questions will be answered or if I will just be left trying to find something that I can't even see. Either way, I don't think I will be disappointed.

Robert Ball (illustrator/designer)The Complete Don Quixote by Rob Davis

A lot of hot air is produced comparing the relative merits of comics as compared to literature or cinema, as if comics need to be qualified by association with more critically accepted art forms. Don Quixote is a whopping (2.2 pounds according to Amazon) vindication of the form, being an adaptation of a famously unadaptable, unreadable book.

It's works for any audience because the you can dive in as deeply as you want. On its surface a picaresque farce, dig deeper and you'll find satirical points scored against war, politics, masculinity and in my favourite sequence 'Marcella the Murderess', a sly dig at the objectification of women in comics. Whether intentional or not, it's a book that encourages such interpretation.

And if all that sounds like heavy going, Rob Davis' adaptation is a hoot, particularly in his use of modern slang, a pythonesque touch that never lets you forget that this is an adaptation. Of an adaptation. Of an adaptation (I lose count of the layers). Rob's art lets your eye travel easily over the page, powering you through the book so that it never gets bogged down, and most importantly lets you fill in the detail yourself. The virtuoso never gets in the way of the reader.

All I need now is for Rob to adapt the Iliad, Finnegan's Wake and Moby Dick and I can swan around pretending I've read them too.

Alison Sampson (artist): Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, adapted from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and illustrated by Jacques Tardi

(NB: I messed up and sent Alison some incorrect information, which is why her submission is something she read in 2013, and not released this year)

Tardi pitches directly into his story with a gunshot to the face from a Bedford Van. Every page of the book is packed full of this directness- we are not spared the graphic violence, the girlfriend who spits in our protagonist's face, or the statue of an otter in the villain's apartment. All Tardi's books contain a level of realism, of confronting the world face on, that I think is almost unparalleled in comics. His relatively simple way of drawing figures allows the rest of the content of the world he describes to shine through. Clothing, interiors, details all matter and make the book far more than the sum of its parts- we are immersed in the places and lives he is describing, not given intermittent snapshots of them. When I look at a lot of contemporary comics, they appear to be very much based on figure drawing, to the detriment of the worlds they are set in. This does not have to be the case. A little bit of background can help a story on enormously, especially when it isn't background. Sometimes a minor detail "becomes" the story.

In terms of drawing, there is not a multitude of lines, and the work ends up looking more complex than complicated, not an easy feat. This is done through clever design, limited tools, good use of negative space and a complete willingness to tackle whatever needs to be drawn. A saggy mattress, a flowery bed-cover, or the sequence where one man rips off another man's ear with his hand (this is gross) all are unflinchingly shown. The art is not dressed up with colour, or fancy techniques, or innovative lettering. The story is all there in the composition, the writing and the sheer viscerality of the tone, in chunky black and white.

Tardi's work is always political (with a small "p"). He does not shy away from taking a polemical position, either. I'm looking forward to reading Goddamn This War!, Tardi's new book with Pierre Verney, which takes an infantryman's view of the war in the trenches. There are pages of drawings of the facial wounds received by soldiers and notes about the condition of the battlefield (terrible). There is no glorification of war, just a description of how it was, with some of the story drawn from his grandfather's first-person experience. In the present day. with new methods of waging and experiencing warfare remotely, we have become desensitised to what is actually happening. It is good to be reminded- and for the makers of books, there is some level of responsibility when it comes setting down the truth. Who better, then, than Jacques Tardi to do this?

In terms of a comics education, then, both as a reader, or a maker, Tardi is a good place to start. Accessible work, simply rendered, with a personal voice, and a unique and consistent style. Like a sniper, being an adaptation of a novel, is quite wordy, and it is this lean towards prose which might also help the work be more familiar to non-comics readers. There are echoes of the James Bond novels- we know exactly what the villain had for breakfast and what he was reading. In terms of art, this was a slightly more talky book than some others of his that I've read, and is perhaps not my favourite. This said, I'll read anything in English from this cartoonist and also will try the French- trying to read foreign language comics is a great way of trying to improve skills, even if it is slow going. 

All Tardi's work in English has been translated by Kim Thompson. We were very privileged to visit the Fantagraphics office in Seattle at the beginning of this year, and had an opportunity to see the surprisingly small suburban house which is the Fantagraphics office, marvel at the historic archive and meet the staff. Kim had just gone home- he was feeling unwell- and a few days later we would hear about the illness that would turn out to be terminal. Kim Thompson's making accessible of work to the English speaking world has been an immeasurable gift, for which I'm grateful. With the recent successful Fantagraphics kickstarter, his work, including a part-complete Tardi translation, can continue. Given we are just coming up to Christmas, why not say thank you to Kim Thompson, by buying one of his books?

Panel illustration by Alison Sampson coloured by Jason Wordie