Tuesday, 22 December 2015

2015 in comics: a reading guide

Two end-of-year lists for you (largely because the opportunity to flag up some excellent comics is too much to resist): a brief compilation of 10 of my favourite pieces that I wrote this year; selected on the basis of how the writing turned out rather than anything to do with what was being discussed. And following that, a list of 25 (didn't set a specific number, but came to this organically, which was nice) comics that stood out for me in 2015: in terms of enjoyment, interest, and quality. 

Writing -especially on a day-to-day, nose-to-the-page basis- can be incredibly frustrating, but looking back at the past 12 month's output has helped, in that some degree of improvement seems to have actually taken place! Which is encouraging. As this is most likely my final piece of 2015, I'd like to sincerely and deeply thank everyone who supports, and has supported, Comics & Cola on Patreon. I'm currently using the money to hire Kim O'Connor to write a monthly column, and am super excited to announce that Sloane Leong will be serialising a new comic, Maps to the Suns, exclusively here in 2016.  A new chapter of the comic will be published on the blog each month, and be available to Patreon supporters a week early. I don't know if it's an achievable goal, but I'd love to harness greater support and be able to do more of these things on the blog -gather excellent writers and cartoonists and make this a home for a focused range of comics and criticism. Having autonomy is the most important thing to me, and money definitely helps with that. Thank you so much.

I've bunched in everything together on the comics list in no particular order- webcomics, ongoings, collected editions, translations, whatever! I want it to serve as a reading guide/list more than anything; I like that function and it's what I've always used these kind of lists for. The majority of the comics here I have either reviewed/written in depth about- so if you'd like to know more about a specific one, simply click on the title and it should lead you through to the associated piece (a number of these were published for The AV Club, and will take you there). In some cases, I've linked to the comic itself (if it's been posted online), or a place that can provide you with further information. See you in the new year.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Kyle Baker's and Kevin McCarthy's 'Circuit Breaker' gets March 2016 release date

Originally announced back in 2012, Kyle Baker's and Kevin McCarthy's Circuit Breaker has popped up on Image's March 2016 solicitations as a 5-issue mini-series, the first installment of which will be published on March 16th. Circuit Breaker sounds largely comedic in tone, which tends to serve Baker's abilities very well: 'When the heroic robots that saved Japan during World War IV are outlawed, they turn against mankind, waging a campaign of terror across the last city on Earth. Their creator builds one more soldier—disguised as his teenaged granddaughter—and tasks her with dismantling the marauding mechanical militia. But as she begins to question her programming, will she be the last hope for humanity, or the final nail in our coffin?' This old blogpost from Baker details the Tezuka and various manga and anime work and styles he's been referencing and playing around with, as well as showcasing some a number of pages and illustrations. It'll be interesting to see what the final book looks like, but there's always a vim and freshness to Baker's art that makes it irresistible.

While that story blurb isn't totally hooking me in, I'm excited for this simply to see Kyle Baker working on a full-colour, print comic again. I didn't come across his work until a couple of years ago when I read Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here (which I could look at forever), I Die At Midnight, The Cowboy Wally Show, Nat Turner, King David, -all of which affirm him as one of the greats. His 20-issue run on Plastic Man is unequivocally regarded as superb, and was recently made available digitally on Comixology (the two trades, On the Lam, and Rubber Bandits, are sadly out of print). There's often discussion within comics of 'pushing the boundaries of the medium' and innovation, but Baker's name is hardly ever discussed in relation to doing exactly that. The things he was doing in comics still feel fresh, and the way he took and blended from other mediums to create comics that were still comics but provided such a different experience, still hasn't really been caught up to today. If Circuit Breaker results in more people being aware of who Baker is, and moving to seek out his work, then that's a win.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

On Drawn & Quarterly’s Feminist Legacy

By Kim O'Connor

Earlier this year, the New York Times extolled the feminist legacy of the legendary alt-comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Hailing D&Q as a “Champion of Female Cartoonists” in the headline, the article envisions a sort of feminist utopia where the “well-regarded publisher of graphic novels is inextricably intertwined with the advance of women in independent comics.” On the surface, it all sounds plausible enough.

Much caught my eye about that piece, starting with the fact that the only cartoonists the author chose to quote were men. (Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry, and Kate Beaton were each interviewed about their own work—not the alt-comics publishing milieu—in separate mini-profiles.) First the author checks in with James Sturm, who isn’t exactly known for his feminist cred. She then inexplicably turns to the cartoonist Seth for his thoughts regarding the publisher’s “encouragement of women.” According to him, D&Q is “a nonmasculine, noncompetitive environment that reflects how art comics have become much more of a women’s world.”

This quote took me aback—not because Seth was speaking as a man (though JFC), but because his description seems entirely at odds with that of Julie Docuet, who has interviewed elsewhere about her frustration with comics as a boys’ club. Indeed, more than once I’ve seen her cite that very boys’ club as one of the main reasons she quit comics 15 years ago.

Because, hey, remember that? JULIE DOUCET QUIT COMICS, a fact that’s conveniently omitted from both the NYT article and D&Q’s seven-zillion page celebration of itself, which we’ll get to soon enough.

Another thing about the NYT piece I noticed was its weird sexist remarks from Peggy Burns—a woman I admire. “Women just naturally gravitate toward our list,” she said, as though female readers aren’t also gravitating toward, say, superhero comics or manga. “We [D&Q] like personal, sincere storytelling. When you boil it down to that, you’re going to have more female authors.”

(So, she’s saying…women like stories? And also women make the best storytellers? I’m reminded of the time I asked my mom to help me plan the menu for a co-ed baby shower. “Make cookies,” my mom told me. “Men like cookies.” I was like, mom, everyone likes cookies. Cookies are so delicious! “Trust me. Men like cookies.”)

But the thing in that article that really really caught my eye was the brief appearance of a totally fabricated statistic: that D&Q’s “list tends to be 50-50, male-female.” I don’t know if the author got those numbers from Burns, feminist spokesman Seth, or elsewhere, but I can tell you that she didn’t get them from the gender breakdown of D&Q’s actual catalog, which looks much more like 75-25.

I think if you know anything about this industry, “tends to be 50-50” sounds sort of dubious. But as it happened, when I saw those numbers in the NYT article, I didn’t feel doubt; I simply knew them to be false. Just days before, I’d had a long conversation about D&Q with my friend Tahneer Oksman, who is a comics scholar. In preparing a review of their anniversary tome for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tahneer had taken it upon herself to do a straightforward tally of D&Q’s contributors, who are listed in the index. She had shared with me her as-of-then unpublished findings: only 25 percent of D&Q’s contributors were women.

I’ve since taken a closer look at that index and I’d like to give you a sense of what I found. (Disclaimer: I’m a math-phobic person with a phone calculator and a case of the flu, not Nate Fucking Silver, so I inevitably screwed something up along the way. The raw data is available to anyone with a copy of the book.) I didn’t doubt Tahneer, but I wanted to make sure the “one in four” statistic held true whichever way you sliced it—e.g., whether or not you factored in anthologies, or looked at the number of titles (or even page counts) instead of the number of creators. I also wanted to make sure that the stat hadn’t changed drastically over time (starting slow and steadily building to 50-50 over the 25 years, or something like that).

Haha, nope. The flat truth is there have never been very many women creators at Drawn & Quarterly. Looking at their catalog as a whole (not counting anthologies), 73 percent of its creators are men. If you analyze the gender breakdown by number of titles or page output, that number creeps even higher; men’s titles account for 78 percent of both D&Q’s catalog and total page count.

Together, Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, and Adrian Tomine have more titles to their names than all women, ever, who’ve been published by Drawn & Quarterly. If you add the works of Shigeru Mizuki, the total number of pages from just those five dudes is nearly equal to the output of all women, ever, who’ve been published by D&Q. And so on.

(A quick note on methodology: titles with more than one creator were counted once for each creator. Also, though I didn't factor it in, it's perhaps worth noting that at least 15 percent of female creators' total page output wasn't comics-related [e.g.,  hefty volumes like The WORN Archive and Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie books].)

If you look at the breakdown by year, D&Q has achieved gender parity just three times in its 25-year history: at the beginning in 1991 (50 percent), and at the end in 2013 (47 percent) and 2014 (53 percent). There were three additional years when they achieved 30 percent or higher—1992 (30 percent), 1993 (38 percent) and 2012 (37 percent).

Otherwise, the numbers are pretty abysmal. As recently as 2011, D&Q’s list was just 7 percent women—two of the 27 titles they published that year. For an 11-year stretch from 1996 to 2006, they published no more than four women per year. For five of those years (2000-2004), they published just one woman. In 2005, they published zero.

Sadly, in the landscape of comics publishing, that’s enough to put D&Q ahead of pretty much everyone else, at least among publishers of similar or larger size. To return to my pal's original finding: at Drawn & Quarterly, one cartoonist in every four is a woman. That's certainly a far better showing than we get from the Big Two, where that number is something like one in six or seven (a ratio that becomes way worse if you consider their catalogs holistically instead of as a present-day snapshot). And if I may hazard a guess, it is also a much better showing than D&Q’s alt-comics counterpart, Fantagraphics. By a lot.

On the other hand, one in four is still very poor—and it's hardly a "list [that] tends to be 50-50, male-female." That anyone would perceive an average of 25 percent as a history of equality speaks to the extent of the problem of gender disparity in comics.

So how does a publisher with a roster like that get labeled as a “Champion of Female Cartoonists” by a newspaper of record? Since the piece was about the publisher’s legacy, it doesn’t strike me as another example of mainstream media packaging fraught conversations about diversity in comics as a trend. Instead, it is a myth that started (so far as I can tell) in the pages of the D&Q anthology itself, and has since been ratified by industry publications that have heaped praise upon it. Having  now appeared in an “objective” source like the NYT, that myth looks a lot more like history.

You could argue, as some have, that the anthology is a glorified product catalog, and such bias is understandable and to be expected. But you could also argue—sorry, I will argue—that the opening essay has Jeet Heer’s name on it as a researcher. I don’t know the writer, Sean Rogers, from Adam (no disrespect intended), but Heer is a trained historian, which to me sets an expectation that what I’m about to read is not straight publicity. Squint at the introduction to their anniversary book and you might get the impression that D&Q single-handedly invented graphic novels, feminist cartoonists, and autobiographical comics. Why? Their real accomplishments would have been impressive enough.

Opening that beautiful brick of a book, I was fascinated to learn about the feminist agenda laid out by founder Chris Oliveros  in his “defiant editorial” from D&Q no. 1. The introductory essay describes how Oliveros “lament[ed] the fact that the world of comics was ‘a private boys’ club’ producing work that ‘very few women actually read.’”

Presumably, the boys’ club that Oliveros so despised was the same one that Julie Doucet would later reference as one of the reasons she decided to quit comics. It seems to me, then, that Oliveros’ so-called feminist agenda failed by his own standard, but you’d never know that from reading the anthology. “D&Q was dedicated to making inroads against the gender imbalance in comics,” Rogers writes. “In the years to come, that effort would only redouble.”

Like…how, exactly? Doucet was the closest that D&Q ever had to a totem woman, and she wasn’t there all that long. Meanwhile, Seth has published nigh on a thousand Palookavilles, Chester Brown has nearly half as many titles to his name as ALL the women of D&Q combined, and Adrian Tomine just farted out the most acclaimed graphic novel of 2015.

Not for nothing, those three men aren’t D&Q’s top sellers. The publisher’s moneymakers, according to the NYT piece, are all women—Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, and Tove Jansson. Those three careers look very different than Seth’s, Brown’s, and Tomine’s. I’m delighted that Lynda Barry found a home at D&Q (and I haven’t given them enough credit for the vision they’ve shown in reviving her career), but the fact is she came to them fully formed as an artist. So did Kate Beaton, who came to D&Q having already established a huge audience with her web comics. Poor old Tove Jansson was literally dead when D&Q started (re)publishing her Moomin books. Those working relationships are each valuable and important in their own way, but they’re not quite the same thing as nurturing a cartoonist across a career. Why hasn’t D&Q formed any long-term relationships with female cartoonists that resemble the ones they have with Seth or Brown or Tomine…or Anders Nilsen or Guy Delisle? Shouldn’t a Champion of Female Cartoonists be doing stuff like that?

Back when the NYT article ran in June, I (respectfully) raised some of these questions on Twitter. I was immediately delisted by Drawn & Quarterly, which means they no longer mail me any advance copies of their books.

With interest, I have noted that both industry and mainstream outlets' coverage of D&Q in this, their anniversary year, reads a lot like a press release. (The aforementioned LARB piece and this review by Rob Clough are notable exceptions.) I was surprised when the only commentary I saw on that piece in the NYT came from Heidi MacDonald, writing at The Beat. “It makes a ton o’ sense,” she declared, before going on to make what could have been an interesting comparison between the photo from the article (a grid featuring four women and two men) and a 2004 NYT Magazine cover that featured five male cartoonists (who were all contributors to D&Q.) Her conclusion? “The above photo from the article also kind of pulls the blanket for naptime over this story from 11 years ago.” Like this whole gender imbalance thing was just a problem that comics has overcome in its maturity.

Drawn & Quarterly is one of the best publishers of comics in the world—my favorite, in fact. In writing this, I don’t wish to detract from its importance to comics, which is huge, or its feminist legacy, which is real (even if it doesn’t much resemble the one it has claimed). I’m just weary of this pervasive and damaging myth that we’ve achieved gender parity in alt comics. Sure, D&Q has published more women than its counterparts, but that bar is very low.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

With pound in hand: December comic and graphic novel releases

Picking out the cream of this month's releases, in graphic novels, collected editions and anything else notable (please note- release dates are subject to change).

PICK OF THE MONTH: Assassination Classroom 7 by Yusei Matsui, Viz: December can be a sparse month for new releases - everything's usually out pre-holiday rush to ensure maximum visibility and availability- but there are still quite a few treasures to be sought in the comics-sphere. For an indication of how highly I regard Assassination Classroom, I read the first 6 books on a borrowed basis and then went out and purchased them for myself. Japanese comics are unsurpassed when it comes to taking a ridiculous premise and anchoring it with emotion and depth. The premise here is that a strange, yellow octopus-like being has blown up most of the moon and is threatening to do the same to Earth. There's a chance for reprieve, however, as the smiley-faced mischief-maker has set the governments of Earth a challenge: if for one year he is allowed to teach the students of class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School, they will be free to try and assassinate him within that time-frame, thus saving the Earth. Of course, much of all this is secret, so as not to cause world-wide panic, making those best-placed to assassinate 'Koro-sensei' the students of 3-E themselves, their motivations bolstered by a promised reward of ¥10 billion from the Ministry of Defense. Only, class 3-E is the 'loser/misfit' class, and their new teacher is one of the first to pay them any real attention and genuinely care about them as individuals. Under his tutelage they're learning more, developing as people, and even coming together as a class. 

It's a funny, entertaining, and reassuringly affirming series that's been a highlight of my year, and I'm really looking forward to this 7th installment. If you haven't come on board yet, now is probably a great time to ask for the first 2 or 3 books for Christmas.

Punks Git Cut by Jay Howell, Last Gasp: I'm a big fan of Jay Howell's (he's best known for designing the Bob's Burgers characters and working on Sanjay and Craig), but have never had the opportunity to own any of his zines or work. So this collection from Last Gasp is very welcome indeed. It contains reprints of his zines 'Punks Git Cut', 'The Dark Wave', 'Let Me Tell You Where/ Where Not To Stick It', 'Dogs and Dog Information', 'Pages from Books Vol. 1', 'Wicked Wendy,' a shedload of drawings, and lots more.

The Hero book 2 by David Rubin, Dark Horse: The concluding volume in David Rubin's diptych retelling of the life of Hercules: 'In ancient Greece the first superhero was born. Heracles, the son of Zeus, came into the world with strength, charm, and a fighting spirit. The Hero Book Two continues David Rubín's epic tale of Heracles in a postmodern look at the Twelve Labors and the champion's fateful doom. The story delves deep into his life, revealing those who would wish him harm on his meteoric rise to stardom, his tumultuous love affairs, and his incredibly heroic feats.' I found the first book interesting in many ways, particularly in how Rubin aligns the mythic with the contemporary: the inclusion of modernity (fast cars, technology), and blending god-like 'powers' with sci-fi; the almost ironic deconstruction of the hero as celebrity, and more. And it all comes packaged in this colourful, cartoony-cool sheen. It's definitely worth checking out, and I'm curious to see how the story goes, and what more it has to say.

Ariol book 7 Top Dog by Marc Boutavant and Emmanuel Guibert, Papercutz: Simply too charming to resist, thanks to Marc Boutavant's absolutely delightful cartooning. The great thing about the Ariol books is that they can be enjoyed in any order: each volume consists of roughly 10 short comic stories, each of which are generally self-standing. Ariol is a young donkey, who hangs around with his pig-friend Romano, and dreams of classmate, pretty cow Petula -all in between school, visits to the dentist, and going away with his grandparents. It's always a pleasure when there's a new Ariol out to savour. 'Ariol’s schoolteacher Mr. Blunt is top dog. A big spaniel with glasses, he never shaves very well but he’s never boring. He always has some nice, little story or game to suggest to make his lessons understandable. In fact, open your notebooks and grab a pencil, you’ll see.'

Steven Universe: Too Cool for School by Jeremy Sorese and Coleman Engle, KaBoom: The trade paperback of the first Steven Universe comic sold like  hotcakes at the comic-book shop at which I worked, and no doubt this new original graphic novel (it's not been serialised like the other), 'Too Cool for School,' will follow suit.  Written by Jeremy Sorese and illustrated by Coleman Engle it promises dodgeball, teachers, and food fights, as it takes a closer look at the friendship between Steven and Connie, and what happens when Steven tags along with Connie to school one day (there's a reason Steven doesn't regularly attend school with humans.) Rebecca Sugar has created a show, characters and universe that truly resonates with many thanks to its optimistic, yet head-on approach to many contemporary issues, and these comics do a great job of capturing that core essence. An all-new Steven Universe book is not to be sniffed at!

Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente, Image: Launched in 2013 as pay-what-you-want digital comic, Brian K. Vaughan's, Marcos Martin's and Muntsa Vincente's story is now finished and collected in a hefty landscape hardback, courtesy of Image Comics. I'm notoriously rubbish at keeping up with digital comics, although the first couple of issues that I did buy of this -about an investigator being set up for murder- I liked well enough. It seems much of the noise around The Private Eye was more to do with the format and manner of its release and publication, and I've read little about the actual comic -which is fine with me. Interested to get around to it. 'Set in an inevitable future of where everyone has a secret identity, The Private Eye is an eerily prescient sci-fi mystery about an unlicensed private investigator who stumbles onto the most important case of his life. The series is set in 2076, a time after "the cloud has burst", revealing everyone's secrets. As a result, there is no more Internet, and people are excessively guarded about their identity, to the point of appearing only masked in public.'

Also releasing: Batman: The Doom that came to Gotham b Mike Mignola and Richard Pace, The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli, The Quest for the Time Bird  Serge Le Tendre and Régis Loisel