Monday, 16 December 2013

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

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