January 2005

Karin L. Kross


Reviewing the End of the Year Reviews

It's that time, of course: everyone is rummaging through their stacks of books, trying to cobble together some kind of Grand Statement on the year that was in the form of a Top Comics of the Year list. I've done it myself, in these very pages, although as I pointed out in last month's column, I'm still catching up on my haul for the year, much less for the last month or two. I am in no position to issue any statements from on high about the year's best and worst in comics.

I am, however, more than happy to poke holes in the lists offered by two of the nation's more visible cultural sounding boards, namely Time and Salon, which by virtue of being relatively high-profile soapboxes for their writers, provide the rest of us with tempting targets. I'm not throwing completely gratuitous stones, however; the composition of these lists points towards an interesting shift in mainstream coverage of comics.

Salon's Scott Thill was willing to note that at least one of the Big Two published some worthy material. Granted, The Originals and Son of the Gun were not from the main DC publishing lines (being Vertigo and Humanoids, respectively), but at least he doesn't appear to be quite as obsessed with his hipster credibility as Time's Andrew Arnold. Here it's not "comics" or even "graphic novels", but "comix", and McSweeney's #13 (a worthy feature on any list, let me emphasize), Seth, and Jaime Hernandez are writ large. I'm glad that they included Bone, mind you; the publication of the one-volume anthology was one of the happier events of the last year.

There are two glaring omissions in both lists, however:

1) No women.

2) No superheroes, or anything that could even be construed as superheroes, or hard science fiction.

I'll admit, even I am hard pressed to remember every single female artist and writer who published this year, but surely Marjane Satrapi should have made the list at the very least? The second volume of Persepolis was perhaps not as strong as the first, but it was still terrific, and that Thill and Arnold forgot about it is somewhat embarrassing. Sophie Crumb, Lea Hernandez, Trina Robbins, and Jessica Abel are just a handful of other artists who published this year: did their works even get a moment's consideration? It's tiresome to even be asking this question in the first place, but the fact is that, faced with lists like these, largely free of any feminine influence, I'd like to be confident that they were left off for reasons beyond shortsightedness, sexism (unintentional or otherwise, on the part of either the individual or the industry), poor promotion, or just plain laziness.

Speaking of tiresome arguments, I have to admit that it's pleasant to see most mainstream journos have finally outgrown the "Comics aren't just about superheroes" lede. On the other hand, the kind of writing in Time and Salon makes me wonder if the pendulum hasn't gone too far in the other direction, in the form of a wilful ignorance of anything that doesn't fit the indie comix mold so perfectly defined by publishers like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf. Don't get me wrong; I still like much of that sort of thing, and admittedly this hasn't been a great year for superhero comics; DC's Identity Crisis is by all accounts a fairly flawed piece of work, as is Marvel's still-incomplete Secret Wars. But this year also saw Christopher Priest's underread Captain America and the Falcon, one of the most interesting examinations of early-2000s America yet (undistinguished artwork of the first story arc notwithstanding). And as the science fiction and fantasy genres grow increasingly moribund in film and novels, it turns out that some of the most interesting hard sci-fi seems to be in comics. I'm saving up for a lengthier discussion of this subject in a future column, but for now, it's worth noting that the best sci-fi books I've read this year are the Jorodowsky comics newly republished by DC's Humanoids arm, Warren Ellis's books Planetary and Ocean, Grant Morrison's We3, and Lea Hernandez's Rumble Girls: Silky Warrior Tansie. Sci-fi, of course, isn't serious enough for a year-end "comix" review in Time, and the most Salon can do is reach out a hand in the direction of Dave Gibbons's The Originals, which, despite its semi-futuristic dystopian setting, has its roots firmly in the Britain of the 1960s.

Serious comics readers will, of course, know as well as I do that the guideposts provided by Time and Salon are flawed at best, and that superior commentary can be provided by such writers as Heidi MacDonald (and if you aren't reading The Beat on a daily basis, shame on you). It's far more interesting to consider these articles as indicators of which way the cultural wind is blowing for comics these days. The profile of comics has certainly improved, and I would say that serious consideration of comics has increased more in the last year than it did in the previous ten. As any longtime reader of my soapbox space knows, I don't want comics in America to be treated as an immature medium, solely defined by the superhero and SFF genres. But I also dislike seeing the comics medium itself polarized into Art vs. Pulp distinctions, where anything that's not "serious" or "literary" is immediately shunted off into its own genre ghetto -- exactly as has been happening all along with film and novels. A good book -- or comic, or movie -- ought to be good regardless of its genre, and treated with equal respect. Perhaps it was too much to hope that comics might remain untouched by that polarization, but I'm still sorry to see it happening.