Thursday, January 01, 2009

Top 10 Comics of 2008

2008 was another incredible year in comics. While several factors went into my selections this year, I generally tended to favor books with strong writing. It seems like every year, more and more talented draftsmen are emerging with dynamic visual styles, but very few of them have a knack for writing complex characters and engaging stories. I also decided to only include new works published in 2008. This is significant because we are living in the golden age of repackaging and there are literally dozens of gorgeous new collections of old classic comics (Absolute editions, Masterworks, etc.) that could have crowded this list. Thus, even though one of my favorite books of the year was Dark Horse's Creepy Archives vol. 1, this is not included in my list. Nor is Love & Rockets vol. 1, which was once again, hands down, the best comics I read this year.

So, without further ado...


1) Acme Novelty Library #19 (self-published and distributed by Drawn & Quarterly) - I know it's almost tiresome to continue to heap praise on Chris Ware. Many people have grown weary of what Sean T. Collins recently described as his consistent focus "on how life can defeat you." But yet, when I step back and consider who the single best cartoonist working in the medium today is (a question posed to me by my wife recently), I cannot think of anyone better. It's not just that Ware is a master at every single aspect of cartooning - from his skilled use of coloring to control mood, to his designer's sense of fonts and lettering, to his unprecedented use of innovative page layouts, distilling more story onto a single page than most monthly comics, but it is also, ultimately, that with all of this style comes an incredible amount of substance. For all of his great achievements, Acme #19 is Ware's greatest story, a layered, thoughtful portrait of a writer reflecting on his life and work. It is meditative, controlled, insightful, bleak, and yes, painful, but it is told with such skill and precision that its characters and story linger in your thoughts long after it's finished. Despite accusations of "pretentiousness" or just being too depressing, Ware's latest story was the most enjoyable comics-reading experience I had all year.

2) Abandoned Cars (published by Fantagraphics) - I knew Tim Lane was an artist to watch when I read the first issue of Happy Hour in America (by the way, is this story on hiatus?), but in no way was I prepared for such an impressive debut. Abandoned Cars is a collection of short stories which are all thematically linked. All are centered around the idea that America has permanently lost its identity. Many of Lane's characters are cultural explorers, searching for this missing "American mythology," even as Lane presents its most enduring images in page after beautifully-illustrated page. Lane's stories are most effective when they focus on individual characters, such as the three-part autobiographical memoir, "Spirit." Here, Lane recounts a true adventure in train-hopping he had during the mid-90s, hoping to discover that lost spirit of America described by authors like Hemingway, Kerouac and Wolfe, and his ultimate disappointment in the end. Lane's artwork is reminiscent of Charles Burns (particularly in his figures), but there is an energy and devotion to detail that even Burns does not attain. The book ends with Lane's interpretation of the Stagger Lee myth, which is also impressive in its brevity and research. Overall, this was the best debut of the year.

3) Most Outrageous (published by Fantagraphics) - The title of Bob Levin’s new book is a reference to Dwaine Tinsley’s reputation as Hustler Magazine’s “most outrageous cartoonist.” Tinsley was the creator of more than 3,200 cartoons, including his most infamous character, "Chester the Molester." Yet this book (yes, it's a prose novel, not a comic) is not about Tinsley, the cartoonist. Rather, it is a meticulous and fascinating account of Tinsley’s trial on charges of rape, incest and molestation -accusations leveled at him by his own daughter. Levin, a lawyer himself, takes us through the minute details of the trial, offering accounts of all testimonies given, the strategies of both prosecution and defense, and, when necessary, provides clear and understandable explanations of legal precedents. Levin is also a great writer; direct, unbiased, not too flashy, but every once in a while, he'll bust out a dazzling bit of prose that'll just bowl you over. For example, discussing the obsession with child abuse in this country, Levin writes: "This climactic shift in attitudes toward child abuse, as with so many sociopolitical issues in America, seemed to have been effectuated less by studied logic, scrupulous research, and patient wisdom than by a combination of crusader spirit, self-righteous zeal, blind-eyed stupidity, steel-knuckled meanness, inquisition-strength intolerance, star-shine idealism, teeth-chattering terror, and bugfuck looniness." I only wish Levin had included more of Tinsley's cartoons in the book (there's a dozen or so), but interested readers can find plenty online.

4) The comics by Dash Shaw in Mome (published by Fantagraphics) - While Nate Neal, whose work I've followed since the early days of the short-lived Hoax anthology, was a welcome addition to the premeir alt-comix anthology this year, and Tom Kaczynski finally found his voice with the impressive "Million Year Boom" in volume 11, it was Dash Shaw whose three stories were the most impressive short works in Mome in 2008. The first story, "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two," is a fascinating experiment in time manipulation, as Shaw tells the simultaneous story of two characters, one who ages in normal time, the other who "ages into the past." Shaw manipulates colors, borders, lettering and other techniques to denote the differing time horizons for each character, and the result is one the most fascinating and thought-provoking short pieces in recent memory. Shaw then followed this up in the next volume with "The Galactic Funnels." In this story (pictured above), Shaw tells the futuristic tale of an artist inspired by some strange cosmic shapes. What is impressive is Shaw's bold, experimental use of colors, as well as the subtle social commentary on artists copying the works of their predecessors. Finally, in volume 12, Shaw's "Train" stands out as a David Lynchian nightmare about a horrific subway accident. Again, Shaw's innovative use of colors creates a wholly unique aesthetic. While many critics will praise Shaw's two longer works (Bottomless Belly Button and Bodyworld), these shorter pieces were the highlights from Mome's best year to date.

5) Bitterkomix #15 (published by Jacana Media Ltd) - Whenever I am fortunate enough to travel overseas, I always try to come back with at least one local comic. This year I visited South Africa on a work trip and was thrilled to discover Bitterkomix, an independent anthology in the same vein as some of the older Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf collections from the late 90s. Where Bitterkomix differs is in its content, which is heavily focused on the current post-apartheid political situation in South Africa. The book, which is 96 oversized pages (32 in color), is largely the work of two artists - Joe Dog and Conrad Botes, both of whom have an incredible range of art styles. Joe Dog's highlight is "Alphabet of Democracy," a museum-style collection (complete with custom frames) of pointed political parodies, each conveyed in a single image structured around different letters of the alphabet. Botes' highlight is "Children's Story," a beautiful re-telling of the classic dystopic children's bedtime tale about the abandonment of the world (by the way, Tom Waits included a great reading of this story on Orphans). Botes style is reminiscent of Nicolas Robel in D&Q Showcase volume 1. Not the easiest book to come by, but well worth seeking out online.

6) Tonoharu vol. 1 (published by Top Shelf Comix) - Lars Martinson's debut graphic novel shows an illustrator already with considerable skill (his self-published mini-comic, Young Men of a Certain Mind, which acts as a sort of prelude to this story, was his first professional work). Martinson's style contains some elements of Rick Geary's, particularly in the obsessively precise hatching, but includes a lot more detail. The story, the first of four chapters, focuses on Martinson's experiences as an ex-patriate in Japan teaching English as a second language. Martinson also brings an exceptional sense of design and Eastern-inspired details to his story (the book's cover jacket and title page are the standouts) and I anxiously look forward to the next chapter of this ambitious project.

7) Capacity (published by Secret Acres) - Theo Ellsworth is the most underrated cartoonist working in the medium. I originally read this book in mini-comics format, and would describe Ellsworth's art as somewhere between visual fantasy and poetry, in a style that is somewhat influenced by David B, but remains wholly individual. The back cover describes his work as a "mind turned inside out" and it's even more impressive when considering that Ellsworth is a self-taught artist.

8) Silverfish (published by DC Comics Vertigo) - While I'm still not sure what to think about Lapham's Young Liars series, and haven't loved (or even read) all of his superhero work, Silverfish encapsulates everything that was great about Stray Bullets. There is the disaffected youth, the suburban noir, the crimes of passion, the rising sense of desperation, the realistic dialogue and the layered mystery, unfolding painfully slow, clue by bloody clue. But here, Lapham has improved his artwork significantly, using a silvery shading texture and more cinematic panels, including full-page spreads, to control the pacing and heartbeat of the story. This is perhaps Lapham's best single story to date.

9) The Walking Dead (published by Image Comics) - The Walking Dead continues to be the best mainstream comic on the stands. Sure, Robert Kirkman's story has become a little convoluted in recent issues, with several new characters who are difficult to keep straight at times, but overall, the book still feels like it's moving somewhere, the premise still holds my interest, and Adlard's artwork (with invaluable assistance from Cliff Rathburn) continues to improve and sharpen with each new issue. While this book can't hold a candle to many of the comics listed above in terms of innovation or advancement of the medium, it is a consistent and satisfying dose of escapist entertainment each month.

10) Why I Killed Peter (Published by NBM) - This acclaimed European graphic novel about a priest sexually abusing a child initially sounded like the kind of thing I would tend to avoid, but Oliver Ka's memoir of abuse, which is told in as straightforward a manner as possible (it's a chronological recounting of his experiences) is emotional without being sentimental or manipulative. It's a sad fact that this story is not all that new or shocking (we have all read similar tales in the news over the years), but what makes it a standout book of the year is Alfred's incredibly sensitive artwork, which matches the tone of its difficult subject matter perfectly. Alfred begins the story using a cartoonish style, employing exaggeration of size and perspective, and caricatures of himself, his parents and the priest. As we move deeper into the story, Alfred switches to broad, expressive brushstrokes with rich pastel colors to represent the maturation of the lead character. By the end of the book, Alfred has completely abandoned his cartoony style in favor of stark, digitally altered photographs, cementing the book in reality even as the past returns to haunt its narrator.


11) Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (published by Pantheon Books) - Art Spiegelman's oversized collection of new and old material was a revelation to read. Although much of the experimental "Breakdowns" section, collected from various anthologies from the 70s (including Spiegelman's landmark series, Raw) felt somewhat dated 30 years later, the more recent opening section in which the artist reflects upon his youth is moving and insightful.

12) Nocturnal Conspiracies (published by NBM) - Any new David B. work is cause for celebration and I enjoyed this collection of dream comics, but it's not B.'s strongest work, largely because it lacks the cohesive and insightful narrative of his Mome short stories, or his unforgettable masterpiece, Epileptic.

13) All Star Superman (published by DC Comics) - I liked this series a lot, especially Quitely and Grant's imaginative artwork, and generally agree with the praise it's received. Not on par with the books above, but a cut above the standard superhero fare, to be sure.

14) Pocketful of Rain (published by Fantagraphics) - This is one of the more intriguing and memorable books in Jason's oeuvre simply for the fact that it contains his earliest comics work. The title story is the highlight, and is one of the only pieces not drawn in the artist's distinctive anthromorphic style. Definitely worth getting for completists, but probably not the best place to start if you're new to Jason's stories.

15) Fishtown (published by IDW) - Kevin Colden's retelling of the Fishtown murders is chilling, yet the story's stark images and bleak landscapes bring the tale of senseless violence to life. It's a quick, discomfiting read and depressing as hell, but a beautiful book.

16) Omega the Unknown (published by Marvel Comics) - Jonathan Lethem's mini-series was fun and visually striking (thanks to Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeir), but seemed to unravel a little toward the end. Perhaps if I were more familiar with Steve Gerber's original vision I might have understood this series better, but it was still a bold and mostly successful experiment in superheroics.

17) Criminal (published by Marvel Comics) - I've been reading Brubaker and Philips' book in trades, so the newest story arc, which was the only one published in 2008, I haven't read yet. Otherwise, it would be up there on the list, as the first three issues from volume 2 were the best comics Marvel's published since James Sturm's Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules.

18) Ganges #2 (published by Fantagraphics) - My favorite of Kevin Huizenga's three books released in 2008.

19) Insomnia #3 (published by Fantagraphics) - A huge leap forward for Matt Broersma, both in terms of art and storytelling. Of all the Ignatz books I read this year, this was the best, and may be the single most overlooked comic of the year.

20) How to Love: Graphic Novellas by Actus Comics (published by Actus Independent Comics) - This very nearly made my best of list. By far the best collection of short stories from the always innovative Israeli art collective. All six stories were good, although the highlights were David Polonsky's "L'Elixir D'Amour" and Rutu Modan's "Your Number One Fan."


Johnny B said...

What about Love & Rockets: New Stories #1? Those weren't reprints...

Marc said...

I didn't read it yet. I'm trying to work my way through L&R chronologically, so I'm only up to issue 39.

DerikB said...

For what it's worth: Conrad Botes is in the new Kramer's Ergot.

Rob Clough said...

Great list. I really like lists that have things I haven't heard of, but want to pursue (like Bitterkomix).

I agree with you on Shaw's Mome work being great. The story in the upcoming #13, in my opinion, is the best one yet. It's called "Satellite CMYK" and really takes his non-intuitive use of color to another level.

I'll have to check out Silverfish... I always liked the pulpy silliness of Stray Bullets but thought Young Liars was pretty bad.

By the way, ACME 19 was my top book as well.

Marc said...

Thanks Rob. Actually, I just read the new MOME last night and agree that Satellite was Dash's best story yet. And how awesome was that back cover? I was also blown away by Josh Simmons' story about Jesus Christ.