Friday, January 30, 2009

Your Friday Afternoon Comics Ramble...

* Paul Gravett has a great article up with 10 tips on how to keep enjoying comics during the economic recession. It's a great list, but the one that most resonates with me is "re-read your favorites." I've got thousands of old comics - in boxes, on shelves, in drawers - and for what? I mean, why am I saving all this stuff, if not to someday re-read them. Well, for me, that time is now. I'm trying to keep my comics spending to around $50 per month, so now is the time to finally do some serious long-box surfing.

* Weening myself off new comics consumption is far from easy, though. I stopped by the comic shop yesterday and dropped forty bucks on the fourth Criminal TP, Daredevil #115, the new Comics Journal and a couple back issues of Jon Lewis's True Swamp.

* I did take one of Gravett's other suggestions seriously, though. I checked out Superman: Secret Identity from my local library this week. Now, I've never been much of a Superman fan, although I did enjoy All Star Superman, but this has to be one of the best Superman stories I've ever read (maybe second only to It's a Bird, which is one of those books I plan to re-read someday). What's remarkable about this story is how atypical it is. There's no fighting (other than as sort of a one or two panel allusion, rather than a central conflict), no villains, and, in fact, the real Superman, the one who exists within the DC Universe's continuity, is not really featured in this story except as a fictional character. Busiek's spin on the real world Superman is nothing new (he's written stories with very similar perspectives in both Astro City and Marvels), and yet, this feels like his most successful work. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the unbelievably beautiful artwork from Stuart Immonen. I'm in now way qualified to speculate on whether this is the artist's best work to date, but it is certainly the best I've seen. Immonen draws in a photo-realistic style and makes great use of single and double-page spreads to create a breathtaking hero's perspective on the real world (Busiek describes it in the Introduction as "glorying in the wonder of superpowers more than the violence"). I also prefer Immonen's style ("tight, illustrative pencil renderings on each page...scanned...and digitally colored, using a palette inspired by 1950s advertising art" ) to anything I've seen from Alex Ross. But the real heart of the story is Busiek's warm, confessional narrator, who walks us through the ups and downs of his life, from the discovery of his powers to the frailties of old age. Despite this alternative Clark Kent's incredible powers, in Busiek's hands he retains a wonderfully grounded sense of humanity, and it is that subtle difference which makes Secret Identity stand apart from the hundreds of other Superman stories.

* I also continue to work my way through many of the comics which Los Bros have cited as inspirations, both seeking to understand their artistic decisions better and to round out my own knowledge base of comics history. Most recently I finished reading the first EC Archives volume of Harvey Kurtzman's Two Fisted Tales (which, incidentally, I scored off Ebay for $15) and although I don't exactly have the energy right now to put into words exactly what I loved about this book, the thing that sticks with me the most is Kurtzman's unwavering commitment to portray the harsh realities of war, rather than to romanticize or politicize it. There are letters from real GIs and military personnel in each of the later issues testifying to how realistic Kurtzman's perspectives on war were. Artistically, there are some definite similarities with Gilbert's work, particularly in Kurtzman's character designs and storytelling approaches (apparently he did the initial layouts for all of his artists), but I'll have to do a little more homework on this to really understand where the specific influences are in Love & Rockets.

* Speaking of Love & Rockets, Jaime Hernandez has a great new illustration in this week's New Yorker, accompanying George Saunders' story, "Al Roosten." I didn't love the story, it was ok, but Jaime's picture is typically awesome. The same issue also features a great cover by Adrian Tomine.

* I'll be at the NY Comicon next Saturday, and will be spending some time at the Sequart booth, so if you're there, please stop by and say hello.

* Finally, this has nothing to do with comics, but I'm very excited for Steven Millhauser's new collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, which comes out in paperback in about two weeks (on Feb. 10). I've read a couple of these stories in Harper's, and they're as awesome as anything the author has written, though perhaps a shade or two darker in tone. Anyway, if you're looking to try something different, I highly recommend this book (or any of his other short story collections).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Five For Friday #148

I missed the deadline for this week's Five for Friday feature over at the Comics Reporter, but since it was an especially good topic, I wanted to post my responses here. The category was: "Name Your Five Favorite Marvel or DC Comics Single Issues, Nothing From The Same Series Twice."

1) House of Secrets #7 by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen - "Blueprint: Elevation A" is an underrated masterpiece, and one of the best single issues of any Vertigo comic. It's also sort of a prelude to one of the stories in Kristiansen's issue of Solo.

2) Sandman #18 - by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III - "The Dream of a Thousand Cats" is my favorite single issue of the Sandman, and this is also one of McKean's five best covers.

3) The Uncanny X-Men #190 - This was my favorite X-Men story as a kid. Plus, it features some great, early John Romita Jr. art and the best X-Men cover ever! It just just barely beat out Barry Windsor Smith's Wolverine solo story in #205, which is also a classic.

4) Wonder Woman #19 - My favorite single issue from George Perez's awesome run, and actually, one of the best single issue superhero stories of all time. This is the done-in-one "Who Killed Mindy Mayer" story, told in a series of newspaper articles with some of Perez's best art.

5) Marvel Fanfare #40 - David Mazzuchelli's Angel story makes this issue a must, but the fact that the backup story is a Claremont penned solo Storm story illustrated by Craig Hamilton (he of the amazing pinups) makes this one of my personal favorites comics of all time.

And because I'm not bound by Comics Reporter rules, here are five more favorites:

6) Fantastic Four #285 -My favorite story from John Byrne's run (although I still haven't read the first half). By the way, here's a great in-depth appreciation of this issue that I came across while searching for covers.

7) Batman: Black and White #4 - by Brian Bolland, Kevin Nowlan (written by Jan Strnad), Gary Gianni (written by Archie Goodwin), Brian Stelfreeze (written by Denny O'Neil) and Katsuhiro Otomo. Plus, if that weren't enough, awesome cover by Alex Toth.

8) Animal Man #5 - By Grant Morrison, Chas Truog and Doug Hazelwood - Probably Grant Morrison's best single issue story ever, and definitely the starting point for all that was to come in Animal Man.

9) Marvel Tales #118 - This Gerry Conway/Ross Andru issue reprints the story from ASM #141 in which Mysterio tricks Spider-Man into thinking he's fighting all of his main villains at once. This was another one of my favorite stories as a kid (I blogged about it here). Plus, it features the Spider-mobile!

10) Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe - The funniest single issue Marvel has ever published. Haven't read it in years.

Honorable Mentions:

11) Daredevil #227 - The start of "Born Again," still the single best DD story ever told.
12) Justice League #1 - Giffen and DeMatteis's humorous take on the League is one of my favorite series of all time.
13) Spider-Man versus Wolverine - the landmark 64-page special issue from 1987 still holds up after all these years.
14) Detective Comics Annual #2 - Features a seriously underrated story by Mark Waid.
15) Superman #400 - The best of DC's many anniversary all-star anthology issues.
16) Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1 - Probably the best mini-series Marvel has published in the last decade.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Birthday Review #3 - Not Brand Echh #11

Not Brand Echh #11 (published by Marvel Comics, December 1968)

  1. "King Konk '68" by Roy Thomas (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller); Marie Severin (inker)
  2. "Super-Hero Daydreams" by Marie Severin (writer/penciller); John Tartaglione (inker)
  3. "Dark Moon Rise, Heck Hound Hurt" by Arnold Drake (writer); Frank Springer (penciller); Tom Sutton (inker)
  4. "It's A Mad, Mad Ave." by Stu Schwartzberg (writer); Marie Severin (penciller/inker)
  5. "The Puns of Will Bonnet" by Arnold Drake (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  6. "How To Be A Comic Book Artist" by Marie Severin (writer/penciller/inker)
  7. "Don't Rock The Vote" by Arnold Drake (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  8. "Auntie Goose Rhymes Dept." by Roy Thomas (writer); John Verpoorten (penciller/inker)
  9. "Ivanshmoe" by Roy Thomas/Stan Lee (writers); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  10. "Fame Is A Cross-Eyed Blind Date With B-A-A-A-D Breath" by Arnold Drake (writer); Marie Severin (penciller); John Tartaglione (inker)
About halfway through this oversized issue of humor strips based on the Marvel Universe, it suddenly struck me that very rarely are mainstream superhero comics fun anymore!

Not that fun is the only measure of quality, but the trend toward gritty, ultra-realistic dystopian darkness has turned most superhero comics into bleak morality tales. Endless images of a corrupt, unjust world, overcome with violence and sex, pervade the genre, and even in those rare stories where a more light-hearted approach is taken (e.g. Giffen and DeMatteis's Justice League or John Byrne's She-Hulk), none achieve the outright silliness and manic energy of this late 60s series.

All that being said, I wouldn't exactly call Not Brand Echh a masterpiece or anything. The book essentially follows the Mad Magazine format, with several short parodies and gag strips drawn in a distorted cartoonish style (a la Don Martin) using Marvel superheroes in odd, contrived and occasionally just plain stupid situations. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but there is a certain persistent cleverness and wit that make it a satisfying reading experience.

There are a couple different types of humor in this book. The first is situational humor; Marvel superheroes are used as stooges in sitcom-style parodies. For example, in "Don't Rock the Vote," we have Namor (renamed "No-More, the Sunk Mariner") running for President against Aquaman (renamed "Aqualung Man"). The strip, which includes a ridiculous debate, outrageous campaign ads and a whole lot of other nonsense, can, occassionly induces a chuckle or two, but the real joy is searching for the literally dozens of subtle visual gags that Tom Sutton works into every panel.

Similarly, in the book's opening story, a slapstick parody of King Kong called "King Konk '68," the alliterative attempts at humor ("another mind-boggling milestone along mighty Marble's momentous migration toward mediocrity") are tedious at times, but the story is saved by the sheer tenacity of Sutton's visuals. The scan above is a typical example. The page is dense with text balloons, most of which are punchlines or random asides, but the real joy is the artwork, which crams dozens of buffoonish variations of familiar characters into an otherwise iconic scene.

The comic also has a lot of inside jokes and not-so-subtle jabs at many of Marvel's artists at the time. For example, "Auntie Goose Rhymes Dept." features Aunt May reading nursery rhymes which poke fun at Jack Kirby. The best example of this insider humor is ""Dark Moon Rise, Heck Hound Hurt." The entire point of this strip is to poke fun at Jim Steranko's page designs from his classic Nick Fury #3 and Frank Springer does an excellent job mimicking and exaggerating Steranko's worst visual habits, especially his confusing page arrangements, where it's hard to determine which order to read the text balloons. The lead character, "Knock Furious, Agent of S.H.E.E.S.H." is bumbling and oafish, the antithesis of masculine perfection that usually typifies Marvel's superheroes.

And that's kind of the point of the whole book. All of these stories feature Marvel heroes acting decidedly unheroic; rather, they're cloyingly clumsy and catastrophically clueless (sorry!).

The highlight of the book, and perhaps its only real source of enduring humor, is the old advertisements for all kinds of ridiculous products like "electronic computer brains" and "giant stallion murals." And of course, no 60s Marvel comic would be complete without ads for "the secrets of muscle power," "new scientific discoveries to help you gain weight," remedies to prevent hair loss, and quick study guides to earn your G.E.D. But my personal favorite is the ad for the "Perfect Voice Institute" which promises "you can have a He-Man voice if you send away for the free booklet, "Voice Power and Personal Power" by Eugene Feuchtinger. I mean, who wouldn't want a He-Man voice?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Shelf Life Update

It's been a while, so I just wanted to give a quick status update.

1) Bad news first. It looks like Sequart will be back, but it might take a little while longer. I don't know all the details, but the entire site had to be moved to a new server, and there's some significant recoding that was required.

2) In the meantime, I've built a temporary site for Shelf Life. So far, I've only loaded the first six issues, but depending on how long it's going to be, I may add some more. Once Sequart is back, I plan to deactivate this site.

3) After more than three years, I've finally reached the most challenging part of the entire project. Issue #39 concludes not only Jaime's "Wig Wam Bam," but also Gilbert's "Love & Rockets X," and issue #40 concludes "Poison River." At this point, I am about 85-90% finished with my analysis of "Love & Rockets X" (which, I have to mention, is an underrated masterpiece). Depending on where Sequart is in the recovery process, I may post this at the temporary site sometime in the next few weeks. Once I hit issue #41, I expect things will go much quicker since the Brothers look like they gave up on the longform epics and returned to doing short stories.

4) My personal goal is to reach issue #50 in 2009, but it'll just depend on how long it takes me to get through "Poison River." I plan to re-read the entire story, including the additional pages added in the collected edition, so that is the most likely bottleneck I can foresee.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The 52 Weeks Project

It really feels like this, doesn't it?

This incredible image is by Greg Ruth, artist of Sudden Gravity, Conan and Freaks of the Heartland, and is part of his excellent 52 Weeks Project.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jonah's Book of the Year

About four years ago, I reviewed Hope Larson's Salamander Dream as part of one of my Crack Shots columns for Comic Book Galaxy. But while I liked the book a lot back then, it's hard to put into words just how much I love it now.

Since I wrote that review, I've read Larson's fable about "Hailey and her masked friend, sharing fantasies together in the quiet of the forest" about 100 times; it's my son's favorite book.

Jonah, who just turned 17 months, LOVES Salamander Dream in a way that is so pure and so joyful, it's indescribable. And his affection for the story is unusual for a kid his age. It's much longer than any of his other picture books, and definitely a more involved story than, say, Clifford the Big Red Dog or Goodnight Moon, and yet, night after night, he sits still (except when he leans in to give Salamander a kiss) and eagerly stares at each page while I improvise the narrative. At some points, he gets so excited, he literally shakes and squeals with delight, especially when Salamander emerges from his tree, or climbs onto the eagle's back, or shrinks down to an atomic element.

Despite all my efforts to describe what makes certain comics great, Jonah's love for this story is the best evidence I can think of that there's a certain magic to comics that is, and always will be, beyond the critics' reach.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

F.M. Howarth Classics

Here's nine more F.M. Howarth comics from Comics From Scribner's Magazine. I'll try to post some of the other artists from this anthology as soon as I have time to scan and upload them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Lost Classic

An early example of sequential art by F.M. Howarth, who was the subject of a great article by Jared Gardner in The Comics Journal #292. This comes from Comics From Scribner's Magazine (1890).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cerebus - A Diablog

In case you haven't heard yet, the other major indie comic from the 80s, Cerebus, is now the subject of a first-time critical reading by Laura Hudson (former editor of Comic Foundry magazine) and Leigh Walton (Top Shelf 2.0 Editor). Having taken the better part of three years to finish 38 columns about Love & Rockets, it's kind of staggering to think of Laura and Leigh going all the way through 300 issues, especially given how dense the later issues get. Yet, at the same time, it helps that they have two of them to bounce ideas off of. From what they've posted so far, they're off to a great start. Check it out!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Birthday Review #2 - John Byrne's 2112

"In 1990, Stan Lee contacted me and asked me if I would like the be 'editor-in-chief' of a whole new line he was going to create at Marvel -- a line which would be set in Marvel's future, unconnected to the Marvel Universe as we knew it. As it happened, I had been giving some thought to a 'Futureverse' of my own, and, being flattered by Stan's offer, I suggested that what I had come up with (but at that time thought I had no place to develop) would fit the bill for his project. To this end I plotted (Stan was to script) and drew a 64 page pilot.

When Stan saw the pilot pages he asked for more specific MU references. I'd tried to keep the thing 'clean,' so as not to turn the whole MU into a Superboy story, but Stan thought we SHOULD at least HINT at what had happened to some of the folk we knew from the present continuity. Fortunately, since my story was told in the 64 pages, this meant only adding some 12 additional pages and some bridging material to make them fit. Thus, when I took the project back it was, luckily, not a case of re-writing or re-drawing, but simply of removing pages I had not wanted in there in the first place. I'd taken a set of concepts, bent them slightly to fit Stan's needs, and then had only to 'unbend' them to get back to my own original material.

Stuck with 64 pages and no thought of where to put 'em -- I did not want to offer the book to DC, since that seemed vaguely scabrous somehow -- I mentioned my dilemma to Roger Stern, who suggested I give Dark Horse a call. I did. They accepted the proposal with open arms. I also pitched NEXT MEN, which had been floating in my brain for a while, and which they also liked. I then realized the tiniest bit of tweaking in the dialogue would make my graphic novel -- now titled 2112 -- into a prequel/sequel pilot for JBNM."

-- John Byrne (3/28/1998)

Interesting, huh?

I never realized that 2112 originated as a concept for Marvel, nor that it was a precursor to the 2099 titles, none of which I ever read seriously (I vaguely remember reading a couple issues of the Spider-Man title, but recall absolutely nothing about them). But the fact that this started out as a Marvel concept, even if it lacks any direct connection to the Marvel universe, is telling. It reveals Byrne's deep understanding of the formula that superhero comics must conform to, and demonstrates what a master he is at crafting interesting stories that adhere to this formula.

And 2112, as a sci-fi book with superhero elements, is a very enjoyable read. Its high concept centers around a world teetering on the brink of a science-war, as genetic mutations have become a sexually transmitted disease. Safeguard, the massive privatized security force which replaced the militaries of the world, has coped with this outbreak of mutations by shipping the "halflings" to Appolyon, a prison planet. But the bureaucrats in charge fail to acknowledge that Sathanas (a character who looks like he wandered right off one of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four pages) has united the halflings and plans to reclaim the earth.

The early 90s was a particularly creative period for John Byrne. His Next Men series, which ran 31 issues, was among my favorite comics at the time. During the same period, he also produced two Babe mini-series, Danger Unlimited, a four-issue homage to the early Fantastic Four, and scripted the first story for Mike Mignola's Hellboy, all for Dark Horse's Legend imprint. Of course, Byrne also continued working in mainstream superheroes. At the same time as his Dark Horse work, he wrote Iron Man, and both wrote and illustrated Marvel's She-Hulk series, as well as another favorite of mine, Namor, the Sub-Mariner (Byrne wrote and illustrated the first 25 issues before handing over art duties to then newcomer, Jae Lee).

That Byrne was able to produce such a substantial body of work in such a small window of time is impressive, but it's his consistent quality during this period that bears discussion. His entrepreneurial take on Namor was among the most novel in the character's 50+ year history. Similarly, his self-deprecating She-Hulk, who was aware of her starring role in her own comic book, allowed Byrne to poke fun at the medium and himself.

But it's his Next Men series which stands out as his most memorable, most successful effort from that period. A much darker story, Next Men essentially took a group of superheroes and dropped them into the real world. While it's been 15 years or so since I read the series, I remember enjoying it very much at the time; yet for some reason, I never managed to read 2112, which is essentially the prelude to the Next Men, although unlike most preludes, it occurs in the future, rather than the past.

The best part about 2112 is Byrne's enthusiasm and creative energy. The book was written, pencilled, inked and lettered by Byrne himself (with colors by Steve Oliff) and this complete creative control allowed Byrne to bring his vision to life free from editorial constraints.

His art has a naturalism that reminds me of a cross between Gilbert Hernandez and Gene Colan. There is an anatomical smoothness and grace to the figure poses, regardless of how exaggerated or fictional the situations are. The panel above, with Agent Red poised for battle while a giant halfling emerges from behind a mountain, is an excellent example of this naturalism. Red's slightly crouched position, coiled and ready to spring into action as he twists around, surprised by the monster, is magnificent. The giant, despite his enormous proportions, also appears to be moving with a certain natural flow. There is nothing stiff or staged about this scene.

Many of Byrne's panel compositions in this story are exceptional. For example, in the first panel at the top of this review, there is a tangible sense of grandeur and depth as we look over the spacedeck out onto the alien planet, and Byrne's use of fore, middle and background, as well as the angled perspective of the panel, all contribute to that disorienting feeling of being in space. Byrne is also a master character designer, as evidenced by this panel of "halflings" preparing to attack.

Say what you will about John Byrne, he knows how to spin a good yarn. Despite the fact that, at its core, this is really just another superhero story, Byrne brings an incredible vision to the book which draws you completely into its imaginary world. Overall, 2112 was a lot of fun, nothing particularly special, but a good, solid story with some of Byrne's better artwork, and it made me nostalgic to go back and re-read the Next Men.

*Also check out Eric Reynold's recent post about John Byrne's Fantastic Four.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Birthday Review #1 - Moebius Comics #1

Moebius Comics #1 (published by Caliber Comics, May 1996) - Despite the beautiful cover, this was kind of a mixed bag, a mishmash of odds and ends crammed together into a confusing one-man anthology. The book opens with a random middle chapter from an ongoing story called "The Man From Ciguri," which is apparently the sequel to another story called the "Airtight Garage." Despite the editor's attempts to provide background for new readers (the multi-page summary was more confusing than helpful, describing dozens of characters and locations with strange names), I gave up trying to read the story and just tried to enjoy the artwork. Moebius is clearly a master of fantasy art, with a vivid imagination, but I found the artwork in this story a little muddied. The problem is that Moebius used a dead, unvaried line throughout, with virtually no negative space, and the result was a lot of cluttered, visually confusing panels, like this one:

Perhaps if this were colored it might help, but as it is, the scene is very hard to distinguish. The next story is the opening chapter to a sci-fi serial called "Destiny x3" and this was a much stronger piece. Although only a three-page prelude, Moebius's artwork was much clearer and offered a glimpse of why the artist is considered one of the greats:

The panel compositions seemed inspired by Philipe Druillet in terms of their cosmic scope and incredibly detailed architectures, and I'd be interested in someday reading the entire story. Next was another confusing story called "Interstellar Transfer," drawn in a much sketchier, unfinished pencil format, about...honestly, I'm not sure. There was something about space pilots searching for new "energy stores" and a crowd of spectators watching an alien invasion. It felt like very early work, unpolished and juvenile, and was perhaps something that Moebius abandoned only to be resurrected to fill pages for this project.

The final story is an adaptation of an unfinished strip discovered in Moebius's sketchbooks, and this was by far the highlight. The silent 8-page story, entitled "Arzaq," is illustrated by Wm. Stout based on Moebius' rough sketches, which are also presented. Stout's artwork is stunning, as usual, although the story is again very slight - an alien dives into an ocean to retrieve an egg, which he then takes to a nest and waits with it until it hatches into some kind of pterodactyl.

Overall, reading this comic was the equivalent of watching the special features DVD for a movie you haven't seen. It was neat to see the behind-the-scenes odds and ends, but they meant very little out of context. There are far better examples of Moebius' artwork out there; I would only recommend this comic for completists and hardcore fans.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sobel

So today is my 36th birthday (which, incidentally, I share with Lynda Barry) and every year I treat myself to five random back issues. There are only three rules I try to follow:

1) The comics have to be total impulse buys (not something off my want list, or stuff that I had been planning on getting anyway),
2) Comics only, no trade paperbacks or graphic novels, and
3) The total cost has to be under $36 (basically, my age).

Here's what I got this year:

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Salinger

If anyone out there is as obsessed with J.D. Salinger as I am, and especially if you've managed to read the infamous "Hapworth 16, 1924," this is an excellent article on the Glass family, written in honor of the eccentric author's 90th birthday next week.

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."