February 2008

Jeff VanderMeer

comicbookslut

Super Sizin' It: Eisner Judges Reunited for a Best of 2007 Extravaganza

After the dust had settled on last month's year's best column, I realized with a kind of slow-developing horror that not only had I read a lot of fantasy material in 2007, but that hardly any of it had been by women. The fantasy slant was purposeful, the other was not. How to be more inclusive and make up for the narrowness of my own reading? Clearly, this was a job for my fellow Eisner judges from the 2007 jury: Robin Brenner, manga expert and spelunker; James Sime, Isotope Comics bookstore owner and zoot suit wearer; Chris Reilly, comics creator and lord of opinions; and Whitney Matheson, Pop Candy blogger and frequent brawler. So, without further ado, my much wiser colleagues' year's best lists for 2007…

(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.)

CHRIS REILLY

An opinion (only) list, in no particular order. I consider every book on this list to be an A+, 5-star masterpiece.

Alias the Cat by Kim Deitch (Pantheon) -- Words can barely (or begin) to describe this brilliant work of psychotropic infused, nostalgic humor, because there is nothing you can compare Deitch’s work to. Felix the cat goes Vaudeville with Harvey Pekar and they both get massively dosed? A true original and pure creative genius.

Gumby # 2-3 by Bob Burden and Rick Geary (Wildcard Ink) -- Pure imagination and nothing but fun for all ages. Comedic minds like burning tires rolling down steep hills, unintentionally chasing confused, clipped wing ducks. A children’s book that is never nasty, but also doesn’t treat kids like porcelain figurines who would crack at the site of their own shadow. Creepy, funny and chock full of high adventure.

Dogs & Water by Anders Nilsen (Drawn and Quarterly) -- In an early scene our central character picks a fist fight with a buck deer for biting his teddy bear. The dear wins because it has no fists but a clobbering rack of antlers. Later in this Euripides-like journey, our character runs into a pack of wolves that actually eat his teddy bear and then befriends him, welcoming him to the pack. They take him to the buck who may have antler pounded him into the ground, who they have already started to eat. The scene where he sleeps with the pack suggests that he may have partaken in feeding on the buck. Just after that, our guy’s in a boat where a man swims up and tells him he’s been swimming one thousand miles to Asia, not because he has to but he just felt like doing it. Sound stupid so far? It is anything but. Dogs & Water is shrouded in epic landscapes of desolation and doubt. The doubt is in both his actions and that a lot of what happens may only take place within the character’s own head. The sparse sequential pages with thin lines and harsh, grim and desolate white space creates a very isolated, lonely feeling to a wonderfully surreal story that never gives you a hint as to where you will end up, but is utterly rewarding from beginning to end. Existential, somber, surreal, disturbing and often times quite funny.

Misery Loves Comedy by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics) – Collecting his 12 year journey that is Schizo 1-3 Brunetti proves that out of the hundred or so autobiographical cartoonists who’ve lingered like ganglions for over a decade, Brunetti is one of about five that should be doing this kind of work. Brutally honest, he’s like watching a hyper depressing, yet still at times hysterically funny, comic book version of Annie Hall. The book’s introduction is actually written by Brunetti’s therapist. He portrays himself as a hard R-rated, bearded, four foot tall, banana-nosed Allen. Sometimes life is good (for maybe one chapter) when he’s happily engaged, but most of the time it sucks. But he still never fails to toss in a few pages of knee-slappingly funny comic strips to break the tension. Make no mistake though, Brunetti always offers up the worst possible image of himself, portraying himself as a one man circus of a self-loathing, sexually depraved misanthropic misogynist. It is a book that miserable people like myself can really relate to, but I think happy people will love it as well. It doesn’t hurt that Ivan is a master cartoonist.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine) – Sublime and visually stunning, this book tells the wordless story of an immigrants “arrival.” The imagery is abstract and beautiful and refreshingly not Photoshopped. The images are alien and so perfectly depict how frightening it is to be a stranger in a strange land, with little more than the clothes on his back and lint in your pockets. The scene at customs where he is subjected to something reminiscent of admittance to prison or an alien abduction probulator, adding to the sense that this guy is so far from home, so alone and frightened. The landscapes, language (there is an unreadable alphabet) and even animals/monster/creatures here are so strange that you really become this guy. A tale that is beautiful, frightening, lonesome and surreal all in one deep-breath-waiting-to-exhale. If Terry Gilliam is looking for a graphic novel to adapt into his next movie, he need look no further; Tan has even done all the set design work for him. The Arrival shows us what comics are capable of and makes us embarrassed that a book like this is published once, maybe twice in a lifetime.

Marvel Adventures: The Avengers Vol. 3: Bizarre Adventures by Jeff Parker (Marvel Comics) – Jeff Parker treats us to the best Avengers since Ty Templeton’s all too short run on the Avengers United from the late '90s. This blows away the entire Avenger “proper” titles Marvel has been producing for nearly twenty years, and in my opinion is the best the team has ever been handled. Parker’s Avengers are made up of Captain America, Storm, Iron Man, The Hulk, Giant-Girl, Wolverine and Spider-Man. The team buts heads with great villains like M.O.D.O.C., the Black Knight, Morgan Lefay, the Serpent Society and Ego the Living Planet (in this case Loving Planet.) The volume collects Marvel Adventures Mighty Avengers #9-12. I am a bit puzzled why Spider-Man and two X-Men are on the team, but, hey, good’s good. The first story “Everybody’s M.O.D.O.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing) is the standout. The Avengers become the Mod-Avengers when M.O.D.O.K makes them all into M.O.D.O.K.’s. The other standout is “Ego the Loving Planet” who's actually here to hit on Mother Earth -- seriously; he’s here to hit on our planet. Parker is one of maybe four mainstream creators who are actually not trapped in the maudlin, we wish we were writing for Vertigo rut, and is creating wickedly fun and imaginative comic book stories. If you miss fun super hero comics, do yourself a favor and check out this book.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4 by Josh Cotter (AdHouse Books) – Josh may look like a happy little Smurf, but there’s obviously a lot going on in that kid's head. I imagine his brain is like that scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin gets wrung through that series of gears. A truly gifted, complex creator. You just have to love a book that’s breaking your heart and then a Star Wars Episode 2, storm Trooper robot shows up.

Bookhunter by Jason Shiga (Sparkplug Comics) – Do you like stories about hardboiled librarian cops who track down stolen books with an armed library SWAT team? The kind of tale where they have book forensics experts on the job, helping to solve the case. Have you ever wondered what C.S.I. would be like if it were a good show, but about books? My friend, Bookhunter is the answer to your prayers. This is one seriously offbeat, wonderfully executed piece of work. Shiga has put the whole thing online, where you can read it for free.

The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto by Nicholas Gurewitch (Dark Horse Comics) – Try to imagine Jim Woodring and Garry Larson having a love child, and if you can, that out of wedlock kid would be The Death of Captain Sweeto. I know two men, biologically, aren’t supposed to be able to conceive a “love child,” but I would bet you a million dollars Woodring could pull it off with some cell scrapings, a Petri dish and a one hundred watt light bulb. Eerily smart for such a young creator. Like Shiga, Nick has most of the strips collected in the book online, where you can read them FOC.

Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics) – Percy Gloom lives in an odd Dave Cooper “Crumple” sort of world. There are "just add water" mountains and goats that sing opera. This reads like a Kafka tale, had Kafka also been a cartoonist who trained under Edward Gorey, Richard Sala and Dave Cooper.

Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf Productions) – It’s like the Transformers movie, but I didn’t walk out halfway through and it is really funny. I am not a fan of Brown’s autobiographical work, but when he shifts gears to humor projects like Bighead and Change-Bots he is one seriously funny creator. It is really hard to tell if Brown loved the Transformers when he was a kid and now realizes what a stupid concept they were beyond a toy, or if he still really loves them, because this parody really knows its source material.

The Living and the Dead by Jason (Fantagraphics) - I am so sick of zombie comics that feed off of George Romero’s original still living brain and guts; throw three darts at a comics rack and you’ll hit three crappy zombie books. I long for the days where plagiarism was frowned upon, and if a publisher noticed you were plagiarizing they kicked you to the curb. Every time I hear that a publisher or creator is launching a new zombie book my head feels like it’s going to explode like I picked a brain brawl with Scanners’ Darryl Revok, so when I heard about The Living Dead, all I could think was “No! Not Jason too!” It starts out as one of those “boy meets girl and they fall in love stories,” when, of course, a meteor hits earth. Naturally, the dead rise and start eating the living. Naturally, the boy saves girl from zombies, but, alas, she inevitably becomes one. To stay true to form the boy shortly thereafter also becomes a zombie too. They remain a couple and go around eating the living together, and in the end (metaphorically, because they’re actually dead) live happily ever after. What a great book. I guess if you’re as talented as Jason, you can embark on the creation of yet another one of those Romero-like zombie books and greatness can ensue.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks by Fletcher Hanks (Fantagraphics) – Imagine, if you will, Ogden Whitney not knowing his Herbie Popnecker, aka “Herbie the Fat Fury” had no idea his creation was abstract and absurdist and you know a bit of what you’re in for when you crack the cover of this forgotten gem. A collection of disturbingly, unintentionally deranged comic stories by forgotten forties comic artist Fletcher Hanks. Fletcher’s hero “Stardust” may be the most unintentionally hysterically cruel heroes of the golden age of comics. Stardust’s “I don’t kill, I just leave you somewhere to die in agony” mentality is mind boggling. A lot of people talk about what a bad artist he was, and I completely disagree. His work is wonderfully abstract, in a Basil Wolverton sense. He obviously had no formal training, but that makes his work all the more interesting. It’s awkward, weird and just a monkey ball of visual fun. In my opinion, that’s great art and a completely unique experience.

Honorable mention: Buffy Season Eight by Joss Whedon (Dark Horse Comics), and all of the Kirby hard cover omnibus editions.

ROBIN BRENNER

To echo Chris:

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming (Riverhead Trade) – This book shines for its sense of humor and the way it conveys the grand adventure of digging through your ancestors pasts and discovering how learning a little bit here and a little bit there may uncover a treasure trove of history. I love how Fleming captures the story of her grandfather's life while at the same time showing the strange but wonderful journey she made, both geographically and through her relatives' stories and rumors, to find some version of the truth.

To echo Jeff (in last month's column):

Bookhunter by Jason Shiga (Sparkplug Comics) – Sometimes I think you have to be a librarian to get the jokes about where to shelve a book you want to hide in the library (the 400s, naturally, and yes, I've actually had this conversation with my library friends, debating the pros and cons of variously neglected Dewey numbers…) This book is fantastic in the way it takes a look at crimes very close to reality (the most famous book thieves are intriguingly odd characters, and often quite genius in how they commit their crimes) and then cranks it up into a great procedural drama everyone can enjoy. And… there's a climactic chase scene with book carts!

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine) – A gorgeous, thoughtful, and touching book. If anyone every wants to see how subtle, evocative, and compelling wordless storytelling can be, then this is the book to give them. 

And now from me, some ladies to add to the mix:

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossom by Fumiyo Kouno (Last Gasp) – This book is a quiet, heartbreaking set of two tales considering the aftermath of the World War II bombing of Hiroshima. It's so far from instructive or pedantic, and Kouno manages to address the rather grand themes of war, memory, prejudice, and living as a survivor with grace, sadness, and just the right touches of hope and humor to make it all the more poignant. This title is also a manga that shows once again that manga is so much more than the latest volume of Naruto.

Mushishi by Yuri Urushibara (Del Rey) – This is another one of those series it's best to settle in with and just let it wash over you. Each tale follows the work of Ginko, a mushishi or type of healer who deals with the legendary mushi, primordial natural creatures who influence the human world in alien and often dangerous ways. Each tale illuminates the beauty and the danger of nature at the same time as turning a critical eye on how people interact with that world. These stories are as simple and as resonant as folk tales, and the art and text work perfectly in concert. For those folks who adore all of Miyazaki's films, this is the manga to start with.

Emma by Kaoru Mori (CMX) – Volumes 3 through 6 came out this year, and it just gets better and better! I wouldn't have thought that Japan would be the country to produce an impeccable historical romance set in Victorian London, but by golly it is. This tale of love between an intelligent, kind ladies’ maid and a restless, awkward nobleman tugs all the right heartstrings even as it avoids falling into the trap of being saccharine or idealized. This is an affair that society is firmly arrayed against, and Mori pulls no punches in acknowledging the hurdles this couple will have to overcome to be together -- and that being together may not work for either in the end. The series is meticulously researched and beautifully rendered down to the last button and ruffle, but the real beauty is in the characters and the emotion.

Suppli by Mari Okazaki (TokyoPop) – While there's piles and piles (and piles) of manga aimed at teen and tween girls, there have been far fewer manga titles being translated that are firmly intended for adult women. Suppli is a great example of josei manga, and the kind of story that reflects the kind of smart, honest fiction that catches a twentysomething working woman's eye. Minami, our heroine, is worried about becoming the hopeless office spinster, career-driven but alone, and drifts through her workday wondering how to find happiness in between shuffling papers and dealing with her coworkers.

Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga (Digital Manga) – The one sad thing about Fumi Yoshinaga's greatness is that, as far as I've heard, there are no more series waiting to be translated into English (the ones currently running aren't quite ready yet). This collection of vignettes shows a group of high school students in all their awkward, sheepish, and occasionally cruel glory. Yoshinaga is a brilliant observer of human behavior, and her clear art portrays every moment of comedy, awkwardness, and sweetness with a keen sense of the emotional rollercoasters teenagers zoom through.

Not by women, but still awesome:

Notes for a War Story by Gipi (First Second) – This story sticks in my memory simply because it felt so very true to arrogance, innocence, and posturing of teen boys caught up in struggles between older more vicious men. In this case, the actual war is present but also offstage, and the young men at the center of the story have to figure out how long they can ignore the consequences of living the high life off of other people's suffering.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)  – This is one that may not appear on too many people's lists as to them, it's a picture book. But, it is sequential art, and it's a sophisticated, powerful memoir of the creator's life growing up in Prague during the Cold War. This book appeals to a far wider age range than its format may lead readers to believe. Sis's history is presented with a clear eye for telling details and facts about the restrictions he and his family live under and the rebellions, personal and political, that he participated in.

Yotsuba&!, by Kiyohiko Azuma (ADV Manga) – Volumes 4 and 5 released this year. It's impossible not to love Yotsuba. Azuma is a master of comic timing and finding the joy in the everyday, something almost everyone I know can use every once in a while.

JAMES SIME

Super Spy by Matt Kindt (Top Shelf Productions) – 52 self-contained stories about the every day personal lives of spies during World War II that weave together to form a tapestry of a secret world few will ever know. From the mundane white lies to those of world-rocking consequences, author/artist Matt Kindt's minimalist dialogue and stark pencils pull you into his character's convoluted worlds and keep you there long after you put this must-read book down. Hands down, my favorite book of all 2007.

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan (Drawn and Quarterly) – The graphic novel debut from one of Israel's best-known cartoonists. Exit Wounds is a stunning portrait of modern life in Israel, weaving the slow-motion dissolution of family in a divisive world, an intoxicating mystery, and a heart-wrenching love story. Simply beautiful.

Notes for a War Story by Gipi (First Second) – A beautifully evocative tale about a group of friends struggle for survival in a country torn apart by war. Youthful idealism comes head to head against manipulative mercenaries, ambitious war profiteers, blind ignorance and the grim reality of the simple human need for daily food and shelter. Notes For a War Story is riveting, poignant, and has one of the single best endings in all of comics.

Buffy Season Eight by Joss Whedon (Dark Horse Comics) – Joss Whedon brings his most famous television creation to the sequential page in truly glorious fashion. No budgetary constraints, no network concerns… the pure undiluted joy of a creator doing that which he loves just pours off the printed page. Let Joss make a believer out of you; this book did just that for me!

The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories by Nicholas Gurewitch (Dark Horse Comics) – Lovingly collected for the first time, The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories is a greatest hits compilation of the single funniest web comic ever made, Nicholas Gurewitch's award-winning Perry Bible Fellowship. You'll find much to love in the dark, twisted back alley where The Far Side, Willy Wonka and Rod Serling meet.

Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way (Dark Horse Comics) – Written by Gerard Way of the band My Chemical Romance. But don't let that stop you from enjoying this amazing debut from one of my favorite new comic talents! This steampunk magnum opus is jam-packed with great writing and wonderful art and all the quirky Terry Gilliam and David Lynchisms you could ever hope for. Brains transplanted into gorilla bodies, special monocles that reveal past mysteries, creaky amusement park injuries, wild alien inventors, monsters from other dimensions who live just under the skin, mad conductors who do terrible things, and even an orbiting Eiffel Tower.

Captain America by Ed Brubaker (Marvel Comics) – Gorgeous art and brilliant writing make the comic named after the world's most famous funnybook patriot a must-read monthly. This title continues to be one of the most entertaining and compelling titles on the market throughout 2007… despite not even having the title character in it. Standing ovation!

52 by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid (DC Comics) – This universe-spanning massive weekly mini-series proved to comic readers everywhere that in the hands of some of the best writers in the industry, even DC Comics "C level characters" can be great. Booster Gold, Rip Hunter, Adam Strange, The Metal Men, and Egg Fu have never been better.

MW by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical) – While Osamu Tezuka has often been described as "Japan's answer to Walt Disney," MW isn't some sugary sweet kiddie fare. Tezuka's jaw dropping thriller about the detonation and subsequent cover-up of a chemical weapon fuses timely political commentary with an exploration of the human psyche in a way few others would dare. The year's most visceral read, you'll be on the edge of your seat and slack-jawed from cover to cover.

Scott Pilgrim Vol 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Oni Press) – Series author/artist Bryan Lee O'Malley's brilliantly fun manic romantic comedy series doesn't miss a step with volume four. If you like rock and roll, half-ninjas, battling ex-boyfriends, rail-slides, failed job interviews, leveling up, and the endless laughs that boy-meets-girl creates, this is a must-read series for you to sink your teeth into.

Honorable mention for beautiful reprints: Fourth World Omnibus by Jack Kirby (DC Comics), new Love & Rockets by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics), Queen & Country Omnibus Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka (Oni Press), Popeye Vol. 2 by E. C. Segar (Fantagraphics), Madman Gargantua by Mike Allred (Image Comics), Whiteout Definitive Edition by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber (Oni Press).

WHITNEY MATHESON

Matheson is the USAToday Pop Candy blogger and had already compiled her year’s best list, which can be found here.