Monday, 9 December 2013

Notable comics of 2013: one and done

It's that time of the year where the 'best of comics and graphic novels' list are coming in thick and fast. There's a lot of skepticism and cynicism surrounding such lists, but I find that not treating them as anything close to definitive and viewing them as a subjective collation of somebody's year-end reading list works for me. I love reading others opinions and being pointed towards comics I've missed out on. But they do have a tendency to throw up certain titles over and over. With that in mind, I thought I'd make a list of my own with a slight difference: getting in touch with various comicsy people to talk about one comic they were interested/intrigued/impressed by over the course of 2013 (including online, digital only comics, first time translations and collections). A word limit of 150-500 words was set, to provide an opportunity to get a little meaty if desired- too often these things end up as mini plot summaries. Below you'll find part one of the list- with part 2 to come next Monday, and I think you'll agree it's a beat apart from most other lists, with a selection of truly diverse comics.

Tom Spurgeon (Comics Reporter): Wake Up, Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian, Fantagraphics

I'm always prepared to hate Cathy Malkasian's comics. I resisted her major debut work Percy Gloom for almost a full calendar year until near-begging on a friend's behalf made me rescue that thick hardcover volume from my will-never-read pile. Even becoming a fan fewer than 20 pages in, I had similar reservations regarding her second book with Fantagraphics, Temperance, and her latest, this year's Wake Up, Percy Gloom! I'm not sure the source of my skepticism, but I wonder if it's something akin to that initial misapprehension and subsequent lack of faith that has kept discussion of Malkasian's work away from most writer's fingertips. Malkasian's comics favor off-beat character designs and a certainty of those characters in physical space -- two hallmarks of a person making comics from an animation background. They're genuinely whimsical in a way that's hard to describe; you can describe characters in Wake Up entirely on the personal predicament they face. That kind of embodiment of personal issues is a hallmark of a lot of great cartoonists even if it's a model that tends to favor strips and other forms with a limited, serial interface. 

What I find most appealing, however, in Malkasian generally and find in spades in this year's Wake Up is an emotional authenticity built less on any sort of heroic principle than a profound orientation towards joy, affirmation through conversation at the kitchen table at 4 AM waiting for an airport shuttle as opposed to high-fives following a slow walk away from an explosion. Tics and tableaux are fine and dandy, and the hero's journey drives a lot of narratives, but what we react to is human need, and Malkasian does that as gracefully as anyone in comics

Sloane Leong (cartoonist): the comics of Joanna Krotka

A lot of the work I found fascinating this year was done by my friends, one being Joanna Krotka. She is a Polish illustrator and comic artist and is always an exciting person to talk and make things with. Joanna has a high impact visual vocabulary, a charismatic control over surreal imagery and storytelling. She moves dynamically between clean lines and thick globular black brush strokes, tightly rendered figures to spectral pixelized forms that breach their chromatic demarcations. Her work feels like a seductive corruption of fine art schooling, boldly infusing new and old techniques within her comics like watercolor washes glitched beyond recognition or animated inky silhouettes hiding behind carefully inked panels.

Joanna is adept at amalgamating these techniques into a cohesive image and yet still they clash and overwhelm the senses in the same way the merciless forces in her stories conquer the characters within them. There is a loneliness in her work, an obfuscation of identity and terrifying disorientation that bleeds through the narratives she constructs regardless of their length. This sort of chaotic loss of self is a favored subject and probably why we get along so well. Her narrative focus is less about making a ‘good story’ and more focused on the work being able to facilitate a unique experience between it and the viewer.  Joanna’s comic are often silent and her compositions exhaust open space when necessary, a difficult skill to master. Her pages never seem insecurely cluttered nor are shy of brutally overtaking a page with color. Silence and space allow the reader and the work to breathe together effortlessly.

Joanna constantly transgresses and inhabits the interstice between her discordant visual styles, the friction between them creating compelling images that uplift and propel the stories, or brief moments, she chooses to depict. Being amorphous creatively within narrative confines is a quality I both desire to possess and observe in others. To me, it signals growth and the ability to astonish and learn. This breaching of creative thresholds at every turn is something I crave to experience as a reader as well as replicate in my own work which makes her art and comics enthralling. 

Cartoonists like Joanna, Sarah Horrocks, Anatola Howard, Jen Lee and Emily Carroll (to name very, very few) are ahead of the curve as far as comics are concerned, integrating techniques outside the medium to explore how stories can take form and how they reconfigure in the minds of their readers. This sort of fearlessness combined with my contemporary cartoonists eclectic visual upbringing made for an exciting year and 2014 is shaping up to be an excitingly violent overthrow of the strict parameters that define what comics can be.

David Brothers (writer, content manager at Image Comics): ONE & Yusuke Murata's One-Punch Man, serialized in Viz's Weekly Shonen Jump

A slacker born and bred, Saitama wants to be a hero, so he does what heroes do: he trains. He trains so hard his hair falls out and he becomes functionally invincible. He trained too much, you see, and now he's too strong. He can end any fight in one punch, and he shrugs off blows—occasionally literally—that would pulverize bone and level buildings. He is the ultimate superhero, the codename-less star of ONE and Yusuke Murata's One-Punch Man, a comic occasionally serialized in Viz's Weekly Shonen Jump, and a dedicated slacker when it comes to everything but heroism. He eats ramen noodles by the light of his TV and shatters extinction-level events in his off-time.

Yusuke Murata cut his teeth on Eyeshield 21, a football comic, but the work he's doing here is as good as any superhero artist you'd care to name. The battles have an intense sense of motion and scale, Murata designs characters who look simultaneously ridiculous and tonally appropriate for career heroes, and you're never more than a page turn away from a sequence that's so perfectly pitched and paced it feels more like animation than sequential art.

Murata's art hooks you, but the way it works in concert with ONE's plots is what's killer. One-Punch Man isn't deconstruction, like Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. It's not interested in exploding our idea of a hero. It's not reconstruction, like Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again, either. Murata and ONE have no interest in rebuilding how heroes work for a new era. No, One-Punch Man is something different. It's conscious of the trappings, tropes, and history of cape comics without being beholden to it. It wholeheartedly embraces what makes superheroes so attractive and vital, the simplicity and violence and honor and glory, and throws a slacker hero like Saitama into the mix to freshen things up. You know how the conflicts are going to end, just like in every cape comic ever, but the fun comes from the torturous, frank, and self-aware approach to action. Murata and ONE delay the gratification that comes from seeing that one punch again and again, creating a feverish mix of melodrama and humor so intense that by the time the last page of the story arrives, your face hurts from smiling and your heart's two sizes bigger.

It's a distillation of everything you love about cape comics, with not a shred of the irony or self-loathing that punctuates a lot of modern ones. Yusuke Murata and ONE's One-Punch Man feels pure, but if it's filtered through anything, it's filtered through love.

Joe Decie (cartoonist): Household by Sam Alden (self published), The Black Project by Gareth Brookes, Myriad Editions

Don't you hate it when you read the blurb on the back of a dvd or book, and that blurb is so eager to tell you all the good bits, that it ruins the story, just a little bit? Well, I do. I like to experience a story without knowing the key plot twists etc. And so I've been kind enough to leave The Plot out of this review, mostly.

I've had lots of favourite comics this year, but due to the way my brain works I can only focus on things I've read very recently. Very recently I read an amazing and beautifully drawn mini comic by Sam Alden called Household. Sam is, for my money, one of the best comic artists around. Some people, they can draw and some, they can tell a good story. Sam does both, and he does them exquisitely. I was blown away by the way he shows light and shadow, he's got an amazing line, I'm very envious. And conversation, he does it so well. Crazily, the ability to write believable dialogue is rare in comics, and poor dialogue is a real turn off for me. These people think they've got a good story, but they've no idea how conversation flows. Anyway, Sam does a grand job, his story is believable and you can immerse yourself in it. There's this theme running though the book, the casting of striped shadows across the protagonists. Maybe it's a metaphor. Read it and tell me what you think.

So I was only going to talk about 'Household' but then, just as I was about to start writing this I accidentally became distracted and read 'The Black Project' by Gareth Brookes. Have you read it? I thought it was wonderful. Gareth has made his pictures with a mixture of embroidery and lino cut, they're elaborate and awkward and odd. And that's a good thing. Just like Sam Alden, Gareth seems at ease with dialogue, the protagonist of his story is very believable and the story chugs along as the narrative unfolds. Gareth has an amazing eye for detail. It's the little things that draw me in, draw me in and convince me it's a true story. You know a story is great when you want to believe it's real, and I do believe this is real. Also I'm a big fan of nostalgia, I lap it up, and this book is piled high with it. It stars a awkward youth living in suburbia. Everybody loves suburbia. And awkwardness.

So anyway, if you insist on knowing the theme of these books, I'll tell you here, in this last paragraph. Spoiler: Both stories are about weird sexual relationships. Gareth’s book is funny, Sam's isn't. Sam's is short and drawn with pencil, Gareth's isn't. I could expand on this but it's better if you read for yourself. You should definitely seek them both out, treat yourself.

Katriona Chapman (cartoonist, co-editor of Tiny Pencil): Lighter than My Shadow by Katie Green, Jonathan Cape

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green is an amazing book. At 507 pages long it gives her room to explore very deeply the eating disorders which dominated the early years of her life. Reading the book you’re struck by the courage required to not only get through the experiences she had but also to create this book with the unflinching honesty that she has clearly committed to from the outset. She doesn’t shy away from tackling subject-matter like sexual abuse, her own sexuality… nor does she shy away from showing herself in a critical light. It’s also just a very real depiction of the uncertainty and insecurity of growing up, and the process of finding out who you are and starting to become your own person.

The book is beautiful to look at and I found that the aesthetics of it somewhat tempered the harrowing nature of a lot of the narrative. The way Katie uses paper-creases and textures… and also really minimal colour… is subtle and clever. Her colours, lines and gestures have a quietness that let the story speak for itself. There are also images that really stuck with me and gave me a lot of insight not only into the disorders that she suffered from but also the long, hard process of recovery.

I think graphic novels have a crucial role to play in opening up more discussion about mental health (perhaps especially important in the UK where there has been a long and damaging history of reluctance to talk about feelings and/or problems.) Lighter Than My Shadow will surely provide a lot of people with inspiration and hope, whatever personal struggles they might be dealing with themselves.

Olle Forsloff (cartoonist, comics publisher): Sunny vol 1 by Taiyo Matsumoto, Viz Media

My pick will be Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto. I've read some of his previous books and loved them but this is by far the best he's made so far. It's about sort of an orphanage but for children whose parents have a hard time taking care of them, or don't want them (more likely, cause they're kinda "special"), I'm not sure, but that is the way he writes it. The story opens up to you slowly, or, it's not a story, just getting to know the characters in different episodes. It's beautifully drawn and poetically written, though not cryptic at all (as some of his earlier reads tend to be - I think). Two of the characters are very similar to Black and White from Tekkon Kinkreet, but as if how they would be like if they lived in the real world. Though not wordless at all it feels like a still and kind of silent book and I love that. It's rare to find in comics I think, a story that's not extreme in any way but rather the opposite, as down to earth as you can be and still leaves you wanting more. I can't wait to read number 2 and 3.

Alec Berry (comics journalist): The Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou, Yam Books

Though it may ruin all credibility, I’ve read few comics this year. Took a break; did some drinking; blew off the culture all together. It was a nice change of pace. Life prior revolved around it (sad, I know). Now, it doesn’t, and the world seems a bit bigger. Or at least smudgy, tangled and more alive than I knew. That said, I’m still reading this stuff, and though it were a short stack consumed this year, quite a few items of said collection deserve a moment’s pause and discussion, especially The Sky in Stereo #2 from Mardou, the Manchester-born cartoonist, who has created a wonderful revaluation / meditation of the youth/adult transition. 

It’s no surprise that works like this or Chuck Forsman’s The End of the Fucking World do so much for me because as a torn, desperate 21-year-old I’m indefinitely the target, if not subject of them. But aside from gut attachment, what makes Mardou’s comic so rich is her dedication to concise, clear narrative. In a sea of abstract, poetic alternative work and overblown corporate mega-series, it’s easy to forget how sweet conscious storytelling is, and remembering so takes us back to the cornerstones of why we gander at this shit at all.

Admittedly, most plot-driven exercises bore me to tears now (here’s a from-the-hip essay), but Stereo grounds me in those cornerstones again because there’s a well-considered focal point to carry me through the story beats – Iris, the comic’s lead character. She’s an archetype like anything else, yet Mardou spices her up by relaying such personality through the title’s use of point of view. Iris takes us through her days herself, and those rectangular caption boxes allow any reader to know the character’s sense of place, potential and disposition. 

“I’m not going to college today. / I’m totally going to call him!”

They’re simple thoughts, but the command she has of them says she’s alive, and they show a being with wants and ability rather than some cardboard cut-out to bounce themes off of. There’s a chance to really latch onto something here that’s more kinetic than pacing, tone or style. Iris is an extension of us, per say, and the conversation this makes goes beyond anything tactical. It goes to our investigation, excitement and dread of the world around us. 

And with her images always serving the beats, Mardou has this book locked on composition. The lines packed with subtle inconsistencies, you know the textures, but beyond her bare line a style doesn’t exist. Which is just fine. We’re not here for that.

We came to see something else. 

Sarah  Horrocks (cartoonist): Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu Nihei, Vertical

Dispatching with the grimy dark lines and hatching that to this point had defined what a Tsutomu Nihei comic looked like, you could forgive some for at first blanching at this new spiffy cleaned up version of Nihei in his new comic Knights of Sidonia(Vertical Press).  His clean thin lines almost form a kind of cartoonish parody of his previous style.  Gone is the techno-gothic dungeon dirge of works like Blame! and Biomega.  Instead what we find here is Nihei taking on the well worn genre of Mechs and the Infinite Space War.

But behind all of this strange veneer is the most important work from Nihei since he first burst on the scene with Blame  over a decade ago. By removing his familiar style points, and leaping out into space, he’s challenging all of the preconceptions one might have when they open a Tsutomu Nihei book. And what’s more even with that, this book is as Nihei as it gets.  Sidonia still explores the infinite journey of the hero within the claustrophobia of time and space--but with the setting he has chosen for Sidonia this journey is warped and modulated along macro and micro stressors.  The singular hero is no longer so singular.  Instead he is a part of a community, but that community is itself singular, moving through space, both on the run and at war with a tireless enemy they can neither understand or escape from.  And despite the cleanliness and sterility of that world within the ship--this is also an old society with it’s own strange mythos and conspiracies.  That old future dust of past Nihei work may no longer be on the surface--but it is absorbed within the fabric of a cloned immortal society which shimmers in front of the old shadows of those old horrors of the DRF and Toha Heavy Industries.  In some ways, Knights of Sidonia plays as a Lynchian comedy.  There are awkward dates, sudden bursts of strange violence, and then strange nightmarish rabbit holes poking out just around the edges.  There is horror here behind the comedy, and it jumps out at you at the most unexpected times. Even Nihei’s monsters, which by this point have evolved long past their Gigeresque ancestry to something quite their own, take on a comedic horror air, as they shape and contort into decaying parodies of their dying human enemies.

But beyond Sidonia’s merits within the context of Nihei’s greater personal canon, and when you see these stories as heroic cycles--that context isn’t unimportant--is the merit that Knights of Sidonia has on it’s own two feet.  Knights of Sidonia is a world of stunning vistas, a world that twists and turns through claustrophobic canyons of interspatial cities before opening up into stunning architectures the likes of which perhaps only Fran├žois Schuiten in comics, can find measure.  Sidonia also has some of the most brilliant monster design work going.  And beyond all of this is a strange socially awkward work of science fiction world building that creates an a unique aura around itself unlike any of other comics on the shelf, let alone Nihei’s own.  There is a kind of in-bred naiveity to much of the crew of Sidonia--some know more than they let on--but for the most part it is an insular community clinging onto a strange normalcy many generations past panic.  It is because of the cumulative weight of all of these attributes that Knights of Sidonia was one of the pre-eminent world building sci-fi comics of 2013

I finally picked up Mickey Z's Rav series this year with issue #9. A great book. More than just a "crazy cool messy risograph" thing. I love the awesome, multi-faceted flow of the first 10 pages - they really butter you up and your way into the story. The geometry of the intro inside/cover becomes the bubbly laughter of page 1. The laughter descends diagonally into the forest, where we find coverboy Ben looking into a river, getting up, crawling into the thicket. I loved the way all the round shapes on page 6 (pebble, stone, the arc of his toss, more word balloons) all reinforce one another. This is all very gestural and physical. Then Mickey does another thing where a lot of her dialogue is presented as "talking heads" from the bust up, looking right at the viewer. It's a nice pivot. There are a couple of pages diving into a tunnel (another circle), and then the story gets going.

When I read this book, I marvel at the way the backgrounds flow into each other, how her frenetic marks build up objects and rough textures as if out of smoke. This is a good language! There's such a heartening confidence in her way of throwing lines across the page and creating an environment "on the fly." Sorry, this is how I read this as an artist; you know I am asking myself, "Do I have the guts to do this?" Do non-artists get the same feeling from this work? I think maybe so. I feel like this art challenges me to approach things I do in a new, looser, more open-eyed way. Is that what's happening? Is this totally obvious? Sorry.

This book is beautiful. Of course I am coming into the story in the middle of things and I don't know every character, but they are all distinct and are all doing very different things. I don't have to understand all of the backstory to really enjoy the 96-page journey. There are several complicated and antagonistic relationships here: taunting, pushing away, egging each other on, pleading, releasing, confessing. Everything is a metaphor. I don't see a main character in this issue. I can relate to everyone in different ways. I guess when a story is this abstract, that's how it works. This is cool.

Josh Tierney (writer, editor): Battling Boy by Paul Pope, First Second

The 2013 book that most reminded me how much fun comics can be is Paul Pope's Battling Boy. The leaps Pope has made in narrative, characterisation and cohesiveness show how serious he has become as a writer as well as an artist, and this is the first book of Pope's where I feel his writing as a whole matches the heights of his art.

This is not just a collection of cool stuff -- something Pope manages to do while cramming more cool stuff into the story than any of his other works (an incredible feat!). There's a sense that he genuinely cares about the characters in Battling Boy, and this care, mixed with the energetic art, has engaged me like no other book this year.

Pope uses the precious metals of comics history, those gold and silver ages, not as pastiche, homage or parody, but as the framework for a kind of comics period piece. He is applying modern sensibilities to the past in order to create a future of adventure. This is how you treat superheroes seriously without having having to work some unnecessarily dark angle.

It's a book to read, reread, study and cherish, and I look forward to seeing all the new comics that are set to come out of it.

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. Part 2 will go up on Monday the 16th of December.

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