Monday, 9 October 2017

50 modern comics [part 1]

I've been compiling this list on Patreon, with the idea being to collate group of more modern, printed works beyond the superhero genre that's hopefully accessible to anyone interested in comics, irrespective of foreknowledge. It's not exhaustive by any means -for example, the whole landscape of self-published mini-comics and webcomics where so much recent and excellent work is done isn't represented- but I hope it's still useful. I'm continuing to add to the list with daily entries on Patreon, and once there's enough titles to make-up a part 2, I'll publish that here, also.

Age of Reptiles by Ricardo Delgado: One of the ultimate tests of an artists is how well they can draw a dinosaur, and Ricardo Delgado is someone you'd trust to draw dinosaurs for your life (should such a situation ever arise). Age of Reptiles is a wordless, prehistoric comic following various groups of dinosaurs back when people were a still a twinkle in the eye of evolution. It may sound straightforward, and it is: stolen eggs,hunting strategies, craftily laid traps, brutality of loss, systems of power and reliance, territory battles -and no dino story is complete without raptors being conniving little shits- are all woven into Delgado's compelling drama. It's so impressive, you almost forget how difficult it actually is to create something of this scale, to convey it on the page with a degree of belivability. Delgado is a superior draughtsman; the detail his fine lines conjure, coupled with a stunning use of colour all work to makes Age of Reptiles a uniquely special work.

Mazeworld by Arthur Ranson and Alan Grant: The first man to be hanged after British parliament's reinstatement of the death penalty, Adam Cadman finds it's not death, but a strange world with beasts and warriors waiting for him at the end of the hangman's noose. As he tries to ascertain whether he's alive, dead, or somewhere in between, the residents of Mazeworld are convinced he's the 'hooded man' spoken of in their prophecies. From detail to tone, overlooked comics-master Arthur Ranson's art does all the work in convincingly bringing Mazeworld to life, his realistic style grounding fantastical elements, and giving body to darker aspects of the story. Surreal imaginings, covert organisations, one man up against everything and yet not sure quite what: at its best 'Mazeworld' compares to the bizarre menace of 'The Prisoner' -and that's one of the highest compliments I can give.

Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann: Gory, insidious, discomforting: 'Beautiful Darkness' follows a group of tiny Borrower-esqe people as they attempt to survive in the woods with winter drawing in. Near by, the dead body of a young human girl lies decomposing... This small band of people and their community provide 'Beautiful Darkness' a lens through which to examine social constructs and roles, the effect of their upholding and disintegration, and the dangers of idealism. An astonishing, unblinking work, it's beautifully painted by Kerascoët, whose superficially appealing style blindsides the reader into confronting the juxtapositions between image and reality, nature and conformity. A modern classic.

Birth of a Nation by Kyle Baker, Aaron McGruder, and Reginald Hudlin: Taking the events of the 2000 US election as a springboard, 'Birth of a Nation' imagines the largely African-American population of a disenfranchised and disrespected East St. Louis seceding to declare itself the sovereign Republic of Blackland. Hope and ideals prove a tricky thing to shape into workable tangibility, with the journey to independence littered with compromise, interference from outside and within, an impatient constituency, and people out for themselves. Kyle Baker's cartooning carries both depth and irreverence, delivering pathos and absurdity in full measure. A hilarious, biting political satire, the intricacies of which remain pithily relevant today.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie: Collected in 2 pleasingly hefty volumes, 'Aya: Life in Yop City,' and 'Aya: 'Love in Yop City,' Marguerite Abouet's bildungsroman of a young woman's life in 1970's Ivory Coast is delightful; rich in detail, warm in tone, and lovely to look at. Clemet Oubrerie's expressive art deftly brings to life both a range of strong personalities and the at turns bustling, at turns laconic nature of the Ivory Coast itself. What's most satisfying about Aya is the real and natural progression of characters as they grow to face more adult concerns. It's rare to see such a truly encompassing, fleshed-out work in comics, where each part of a character's life, their relationships, hopes and dreams, are thoroughly addressed.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: One of the first names that pops into mind when discussing contemporary horror comics, perhaps nobody is as effective in slowly conjuring up dread as Emily Carroll. Her eerily atmospheric tales combine the transcendent and  sub-conscious with elements of folk and fairytale, all the while remaining grounded in the sinew of human impulse and emotion. Curiously attuned to people's fears, Carroll open use of page layout allows her to slide into the questioning, murky areas of the reader's brain to simmer and suggest. But it's her ability to weave strong narratives with uniquely evocative images to create genuinely unsettling, creepy comics, that easily put her at the forefront of the genre.

Aama by Frederik Peeters: Largely unheralded upon translation, Frederik Peeters' Aama is nevertheless an unequivocal modern sci-fi great, not least because it features a cigar-smoking chimp-android named Churchill. Peeters delves into the idea of humanity's future lying in an evolutionary amalgamation of the natural and technological worlds, as 2 estranged brothers are thrust together to track down an AWOL sentient bio-robotic science experiment. Peeters' gorgeous artwork rises lushly to the task of realising vivid imagined concepts to the page: lurid jungles of flora; sharp, metallic-cluster space vehicles; fractured mindscapes, and gloriously weird creatures.

Ordinary Victories by Manu Larcenet: The sole Manu Larcenet work to be published in English, 'Ordinary Victories' is a magnificent diptych following the life of photographer, Marco, which, on the surface, follows a recognisable narrative path: man stagnating with career and relationships attempts to break out of rut. Yet Larcenet is too good a writer to not offer something better; more nuanced. He shows the knots and flaws of Marco's character as exactly such, displaying the ways in which they both impact his life as well as those around him- and unlike many male-crisis portrayals Marco faces his shortcomings, undergoing emotional growth. Larcenet's cartooning is marked by an open empathy, as Marco navigates anxiety attacks and the loss of his father whilst coming to terms with having a child of his own. As banal, complex, and moving as life itself.

Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson: Serialised in The Washington Post in the noughties, Richard Thompson's Cul De Sac is arguably the last great newspaper strip, and unarguably a wonderful, towering achievement. What makes the brief sojourns into the life of Alice and her family and friends exceptionally singular is the sheer room Thompson is able to lend to an array of ongoing narrative elements. Thompson is impressively effective in quickly imbuing traits and tones he wants conveyed. From Petey's shoe-box dioramas to Mr Otterloop's car, Dill's brothers to Alice's manhole dancing, the uh-oh baby to Tommy Fretwork and his banjo, each is sewn seamlessly into the tapestry of the strip, made significant no matter how brief the appearance. Fine, spidery lines combined with sketchily hatched textures further provide the cartooning with a quirky, expressive charm. Every aspect of Cul de Sac is immensely appreciable in its own standing. An objectively superlative work. 

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs: Jacobs' tale of a newlywed couple eager to take in the sights and experiences of their first class safari holiday weaves man's separation, distrust, and exerted dominance over nature with slyly absurd humour and invasive body horror. The brash, misplaced confidence of the humans clashes with the unaware, seemingly naive jungle beings. Drawn with mitochondrial intricacy, Jacobs' style is exceptionally suited to Safari Honeymoon's thematic leanings: appropriately lush with dizzying detailed sequences, and yet with a quality of inscrutability that belies intent. 

Sock Monkey Treasury by Tony Millionaire: There's no need for subversion when the fertile fields of children's literature provide a rich tradition for the strange and off-kilter. It's this tradition that Tony Millionaire deliberately -and so effectively- taps into with Sock Monkey, a beautifully stylised compendium of stories following the adventures of the titular cloth primate, a stuffed, manic crow, and Inches, a porcelain doll. From being captivated by a rainbow-light-reflecting glass doorknob, to experiencing guilt and self-loathing over the accidental killing of a baby bird, to brutal, epic character journeys, Sock Monkey finds its complex, not always likeable cast display their sentience in a myriad of very human ways. Weird, brilliant, and always engrossing.

Literary Life by Posy Simmonds: Undoubtedly one of Britain's finest cartoonists, Posy Simmonds has authored a number of favourites for young and old, from 'Mrs Weber's Diary' to 'Baker Cat,' to 'Tamara Drewe' and 'Fred.' Yet perhaps nowhere do her qualities of observational touch and sharp wit combine to better effect than in 'Literary Life.' Serialised as a Saturday strip in the Guardian's Review section, she deftly dissects the pretensions of the literary world, taking on the egos of male authors, reading group politics, booksellers' burdens, children's literature, and more. Simmonds' cartooning is always a joy to behold; her lines carry such humour and affability, working in stylishly appealing tandem with her more scathing satire.

Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki: You'll be hard-pressed to find a more cutting critique of the intense social regimenting of women's appearances than Okazaki's tale of a super-model prepared to go to the most extreme lengths to preserve her success. Sharp, angular lines acutely parallel themes of beauty and pain.

Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh: What makes Courtney Crumrin stand out amongst the magical teen genre is the successful, layered portrayal of its protagonist. Dragged to a new suburb and a new school by her indifferent parents, Courtney's prickly personality is informed by their neglect, and the ostracisation of her peers, resulting in an impatient, defensive, temperament that anchors and drives Ted Naifeh's 7-volume series. Naifeh's supernatural, spooky shenanigans are given an extra depth by virtue of being firmly informed by the depiction and journey of its central character; as Courtney discovers there may be a sliver of a silver lining to moving homes in the form of her mysterious Great Uncle Aloysius and  the Crumrin legacy.

The Absence by Martin Stiff: One of the most memorable British comics in recent times, Martin Stiff's story of a man who returns to his small coastal village in England after the second world war is an exercise in building suspense. Presumed dead, Marwood Clay is the lone solider from his town to make the trip home, now horribly disfigured and strangely hated and shunned by all. But Marwood's pariah-hood extends beyond a resentful discomfort of his survival, to events that took place before he left and changes that have occurred since. Taut and intriguing, Stiff maintains a grip on the attention throughout, the starkness of his black and white art creating a implacable atmosphere that gives little away.

Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa: A true gem of a book, 'Three Shadows' is a hugely emotive tale; a windswept treatise on loss and fate sublimely rendered by Pedrosa. Three ominous shadows appear suddenly on the horizon outside Louis and Lise's woodland house, drawing closer each day. As Louis and Lise's anxiety increases in proximity to the foreboding visitors, it becomes clear the shadows are here to take their young son- and that nothing will stand in their way. But an angry, scared Louis will not let his son go without a fight, leaving behind Lise to embark on an epic journey to save him. Pedrosa's loose, sweeping art defines this beautiful work; soft charcoals and deep inks acutely expressing each heartfelt beat.

We3 by Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison: Part of a government experiment, Cat, Dog, and Rabbit are house pets who have been augmented with cyborg-esqe shells and weaponary. But they are just the program's prototypes, and with testing complete, the semi-sentient animals are now marked for permanent decommissioning. Desperate to live free, they seize an opportunity to escape, to preserve their family and search for "home" away from the clutches of the shadowy agency that created them. Quitely goes to town on the spectacular visuals depicting an evocative maelstrom of violence, panic, and pain in this gut-wrenching tale.

Yotsuba &! by Kiyohiko Azuma: Funny, warm, and off-beat, Yotsuaba & ! follows the everyday adventures of a 5-year old, green-haired girl who lives with her single father. The cast of the comic is bolstered mainly by the three daughters of the family next door with whom she spends a lot of time, and also by Yotsuba's dad's friends: the very tall and aptly-nicknamed Jumbo, and Yostuba's mortal enemy, the younger Yanda. There are many 'slice-of-life' mangas, Azuma's Yotsuba as truly special. It's one of those very few comics where the tone, pitch, characters, pacing, writing, and cartooning all coalesce into a reading experience that's so completely fluid and natural that it's unassailable. To make the mundane interesting is a tough task; to make it immersive and joyful, yet still believable is masterful.

The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi: Adhering to the Ronseal ethos of 'does what it says on the tin,' The Walking Man does indeed feature a man walking. The reader joins Taniguchi's nameless protagonist as he takes respite in journeying around his town on foot. In following the man, we're forced to match him for pace, to stop when he does, to take in what he sees, the way he sees it; to appreciate things such as a jar of flowers left on the pavement, ducks gathered in a pond, getting caught in a sudden soft snowfall, impulsively buying a balloon from the market and blowing it up right there. There are few who exemplify contained elegance better, and Taniguchi's clear, precise style details the minutiae of environment thoroughly. Beautifully, quietly affirming.

Godzilla: the half century war by James Stokoe: You don't have to know anything about the God of Monsters to know the unadulterated excellence of James Stokoe's standalone miniseries. Framed around the life of Ota Murakami, a 20-something soldier who's on the scene when Godzilla first makes himself known to the world, Stokoe's narrative transposes the lifetime of one man against the uncaring, unchangeable force of a god-like beast. Stokoe's application of acidic gradiented colours can take adjustment but his staggeringly stunning, hyper-detailed art is a perfectly-tailored fit to the beauty, savagery and scale at hand. No-one is better suited to deliver the spectacle of huge monsters roaming the Earth: to actually make you feel the terror and wonder of amazing, ferocious creatures doing battle. 

Cradlegrave by John Smith and Edmund Bagwell: Released from a prison stint for his pyromaniac tendencies, Shane returns home to life on a working class estate to find little has changed. Straining between a sense of loyalty and obligation to his friends and family and the desperate need to leave, his decision is put on hold as he's drawn in to the strange going ons in the home of his elderly neighbours, Ted and Mary. Cradlegrave acutely captures the grim hopelessness of the working class young, trapped in an unceasing cycle of quiet despair, marrying it with a perverse, fetid horror which you'll struggle to shake off.

Monster by Naoki Urasawa: Unsurpassed in creating intelligent, emotional, entertaining comics, Naoki Urasawa puts his talents once more to the task in Monster,  the story of Dr. Kenzō Tenma, a brilliant young surgeon who saves the life of a young boy in his emergency operating theatre, only to realise years later that he may be the perpetrator of a series of murders taking place. Where Urasawa truly excels is his understanding of people: in writing character and the interplay of human behaviour. No-one is able to introduce minor characters and arcs within a story and make them as nuanced, impactful and as satisfying as he, a facet that the psychologies of Monster provide fertile ground for. 

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton: Responsible for propagating a whole sub-culture and the rise of many a meme, Kate Beaton's witty comics featuring literary, historical, and feminist figures; a dollop of artistic license, and expressive cartooning have become so widespread and instantly familiar that they've grown to a life beyond both comics and Beaton. It's easy to see why. The snarky yet affectionate examinations of what is considered Western cultural canon have an accessible appeal, and Beaton has a keen turn of phrase, condensing and dispersing information with effective charm.

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki: Although only published earlier in 2017, Boundless is a collection of Tamaki comics published through various outlets over the last few years that gives evidence to the breadth of her capability. That Tamaki is a superb artist with sublime draughtsmanship is well known from her award-winning collaborative works with cousin Mariko Tamaki: Skim, This One Summer. She's also a vitally interesting cartoonist in her own right, chronicling modern life and a generation of 'millenial' adults in an astute, questioning manner that will probably be only fully appreciated when history looks back.

Hardboiled by Geof Darrow and Frank Miller: The machines rise up, or try to, in Frank Miller's and Geof Darrow's violent cybernetic version of the Truman Show. Carl Seltz is a suburban insurance investigator, a loving husband, and devoted father. But he's also Unit Four, a robot killing machine upon whom the hopes of mankind's enslaved mechanical race rest. Which identity will Carl choose? Darrow's glorious heat-filled pages teem with life, as copious amounts of brand names- Snickers, McDonald's, Coca Cola- flash throughout, maintaining a non-strop stream of engorged consumption. A tale of imposed conformity and the consequences of realising you might be more.

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