January 2008

Jeff VanderMeer


The Top Graphic Novels of the Year

In perusing the somewhat depressing Chris Ware-edited volume of Best American Comics, I saw a lot of gray. Literally and sometimes figuratively, although not in the positive sense of being subtle. Instead, it was more like Ware completely ignored almost anything without a minimalist or mimetic sensibility. (Taken separately, several of these comics would have been interesting, but taken together... an abyss of sameness.) Is this the future of comics, then? That to become legit, you have to jettison all of the energy, drive, and imagination that made comics interesting in the first place?  

So, in the interests of redressing the balance, even if it's for a different year, most of my selections for the best of 2007 have a significant fantastical or surreal element. This really isn't an arbitrary decision, though -- it's a reflection of the fact that 2007 was a very strong year for fantasy in graphic novels. Much of the autobiographical or more realistic material I read seemed to rehash themes and approaches I'd seen done better before. I'd also note that the comics field has become too large and too fragmented for any one person to read everything released in a given year. It's simply impossible. I'm sure that another reviewer could come up with an equally strong list with a different emphasis -- and, in fact, I challenge bloggers and others to do so. (Visit my blog at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com to give me your opinion.)

Also note -- I cannot review what I do not receive, so please send it! As always, send comments, complaints, and mutterings to vanderworld at hotmail.com. Materials for review should be sent to Bookslut and to me at: POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.

So here goes... The Top Graphic Novels of the Year

#12 - Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen
Alternative Comics

ISBN 9781891867996
304 Pages

In 2007, I didn't find much strictly autobiographical material recounted in a realistic tone -- that I liked, at least. Red Eye, Black Eye was a wonderful exception. It tells the story of Jensen's journey across the U.S. by bus after losing his job. As I wrote last year, "The drawing style is bold and functional, the perfect conduit for the storytelling that makes this book stand out. Some of these stories [from his travels] are hilarious, some sad, some just strange." The book is entertaining, insightful, and perfectly paced.

#11 - The Nightmare Factory, based on the stories of Thomas Ligotti
Fox Atomic/Harper Paperbacks
ISBN 9780061243530
112 pages

Thomas Ligotti is perhaps the best dark fantasy/horror writer since Kafka. This graphic novel collects several of his stories in illustrated form, featuring the talents of Stuart Moore, Ben Templesmith, Ted McKeever, and many more. It's a great introduction to Ligotti's work for those who haven't encountered it before, in a variety of drawing styles.

#10 - Wormwood Gentleman Corpse: Birds, Bees, Blood, & Beer by Ben Templesmith
IDW Publishers
ISBN: 1600100473
152 Pages

Best known for the collaboration 30 Days of Night, Templesmith energetically entered into writing and drawing his own decadent take on the world with the lively, imaginative, and darkly gorgeous Wormwood. I may be a sucker for tentacular horrors, but Templesmith renders them up in such vivid, mind-blowing color and with such wit that I think I can be forgiven.

#9 - Bookhunter by Shiga
Sparkplug Comics

ISBN: 097427156X
144 Pages

Books and libraries have never gotten the thriller treatment quite like this -- big-budget Hollywood movie tropes wedded to book theft. From a prior column: "A perfect prologue, in which a book thief is tracked down by the Library Police and shot before he can put the hostage books to the torch, lets readers know they’re not in Realityville anymore... It’s quite an achievement by Shiga to make the examination of a card catalogue pulse-pounding. Shiga invests the details of book creation, collecting, and preservation with an urgency and fascination that defies description." Amazingly entertaining and hardboiled.

#8 - Essex County Volume I: Tales From the Farm, by Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf
ISBN: 1891830880
112 Pages

Divided into four sections corresponding to the four seasons, this beautiful evocation of place and character follows ten-year-old Lester as he goes to live on uncle's farm after his mother's death. As I wrote back in 2007, "Lester forms a friendship with a gas station attendant named Jimmy Lebeuf who used to be a professional hockey player until a bad hit knocked him out of the game. Together, the two comics' fans build a rich fantasy life revolving around the possibility of an alien invasion." Funny, sad, and deep, Essex County Volume I derives its power from the contrast between the starkness of the landscape and the rich inner life of the characters.

#7 - Regards From Serbia by Aleksandar Zograf
Top Shelf
ISBN: 1891830422
288 Pages

Although there have been many accounts of living through the civil war in Yugoslavia, Zograf's graphic novel benefits from its combination of precise detail and use of fantastical elements. A scene in which soldiers civilians think are there to rescue them just steal their radiator has an uncanny surrealism to it, for example. Somehow Zograf manages to find the darkly humorous even as he, as I wrote in a prior column, "fully grasps the awful absurdity of the human condition during wartime. Aiding this effort is his bold yet fluid line work and his willingness to include fantastical elements and portents that capture psychological truths about the situation."

#6 - Artesia: Afire by Mark S. Smylie
Archaia Studio Press

ISBN: 1932386335
240 Pages

Exemplifying the best of intelligent heroic fantasy, the Artesia books feature a heroine who is intelligent, fierce, and passionate. This latest collection offers up an exceedingly high standard of storytelling, weaving together battle sequences, court intrigue, and the supernatural. I have to admit when I started reading the Artesia books I didn't know what to expect, but I was quickly drawn in to this topnotch series.

#5 - Laika by Nick Abadzis
First Second

ISBN: 1596431016
208 Pages

Increasingly, graphic novels are dealing with historical subjects, some in a hybrid form that's halfway between conventional story and documentary. Abadzis's effort is the latest, and one of the best. Telling the story of Earth's first space traveler, a dog named Laika that was part of the Soviet space program, Laika is by turns moving and informative. It's also beautifully drawn, in subdued but evocative color. A subject that could have turned sentimental comes across much more nuanced than it might have in lesser hands.

#4 - Flight, Volume Four, edited by Kazu Kibuishi
ISBN: 0345490401
352 Pages

I thought the previous volume of Flight had a few too many kids chased by monsters, monsters turning out to be nice, and not enough differences in the drawing styles. However, this fourth volume of what many think of as the classic original anthology of fantastical comics marks a return to form. As I noted in 2007, "The overall energy, imagination, and storytelling chops on display in Flight, Volume 4 make it an early contender for an Eisner, in my opinion... Highly recommended for anyone who loves the kind of seamless sense of play that distinguishes the great from the merely good."

#3 - The Blot by Tom Neely
I Will Destroy You

ISBN 9780974271583
180 Pages

Taking apart your expectations of comics, The Blot is a playful, at times harrowing, postmodern approach to the question of identity. In a prior column, I wrote, "In a crisp, clean, yet utterly surreal drawing style, Neely depicts the odd adventures of an Average Joe whose face is periodically ravaged by a giant ink blot. The story is all conveyed through the sometimes stark but always dynamic art." The subconscious depth of the book results in part because "the characters have been drawn in what I’d call a classic comics style, so when they are naked... it’s that much more effective. It’s as if Popeye suddenly had an existential crisis, and stood revealed as a three-dimensional person." The Blot could have just been a kind of self-indulgent student exercise -- instead, it's edgy, wise, and thought-provoking.

#2 - Shooting War by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman
Grand Central Publishing

ISBN 9780446581202
192 pages

Near-future SF, searing indictment of the present--whatever you decide to call this stunning graphic novel edition of the online comic, don't call it shy. As I wrote in 2007, "In Lappé and Goldman's Iraq, the center has not held and factions run roughshod over the ambitions of the U.S. military remaining in the country. Robotic weapons innovations form a counterpoint to the tried-and-true methods of the insurgents, as reported on by left-wing blogger Jimmy Burns." Shooting War is a triumph because of the way it balances character and satire while preserving the complexity of the situation.

#1 (tie) - Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Books

ISBN: 9781593076733
318 pages

One of the publishing events of the year, Talbot's heady collage of fantasy and reality is a modern classic of the graphic novel form. Relating the history of the city of Sunderland, Talbot meditates on history as it intersects with the personal and with myth. The plethora of drawing styles are nicely linked by the framing narratives and the insertion of characters from Alice in Wonderland works extremely well. What I like best about this welter of ideas and images is the questing, searching aspect of it. Even when Talbot is relaying historical fact, it's used not as a tool to lecture, but a way of opening up the reader's mind to an array of fascinating ideas.

#1 (tie) - The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books

ISBN 9780439895293
128 Pages

This book was quite simply, along with Alice in Sunderland, one of the two best graphic novels of this or any other year. It exemplified the ways in which graphic novels are unique in their effect and format. As I wrote in the column I devoted to The Arrival, "The story is simple: an immigrant arrives in a strange city and tries to make a life for himself so that one day he can send for his family. He encounters strange, fantastical creatures that are as natural as breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the native inhabitants. He learns the stories of other immigrants who have come to the city. At the end, he is reunited with his family. Wordless yet containing worlds, Shaun Tan's The Arrival demonstrates the power of fantasy to show us our reality. It is also an example of the rare book that feels full and complete without conventional conflict and conflict resolution." No graphic novel reader's bookshelf is complete without The Arrival.

An art form that can find room for brilliant work as different as Alice in Sunderland and The Arrival -- one wordless, seamless, and deceptively simple; the other glutted with words, knotted and gnarled, and complex -- is an art form triumphantly vibrant and alive.