January 2006

Bill Baker


Some of the Rest of the Best of 2005

Rather than spend the entire column focusing on one book, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on a small, selective batch of some the truly fine books which might not have gotten the amount of attention they deserve. As the title above states, this is basically me looking at a short stack of original graphic novels and collections which impressed me over the last year. Of course, this also means that I'll be leaving out a ton of outstanding work, as well as avoiding titles which have already gotten a lot of press or appeared on other folks' "Best of" lists multiple times -- such as the wonderful Absolute Watchman that DC recently released, which I will surely discuss in detail at some point in the future.

Trust me when I say that I am leaving out a surprisingly large number of titles in this list out of sheer necessity, and also believe me when I state that 2005 has been an exceptionally rich and rewarding year for the reader of graphic novels. Here are just a few of the reasons why...

Baron: The Cat Returns by Aoi Hiiragi
published by VIZ

After Haru saves a seemingly-normal cat from becoming roadkill one afternoon, the precocious high school student finds herself propelled into a strange world which is inhabited by talking, magical cats. The ruler of this shadowy land wishes to show his gratitude for her saving the life of his son by arranging for their marriage -- regardless of the prospective bride or groom's wishes. Aided by the titular character and an unwilling rogue feline turned hero, the girl has but a few hours time to escape her own nuptials and forced imprisonment in this land beyond life itself. An excellent book suitable for all ages, Baron: The Cat Returns features a strong female lead surrounded by distinctive and original characters and surreally challenging situations, all rendered with real flair and grace. Even better, this volume holds up to repeated readings, and offers some subtle and not-so-subtle truths about life, death, and coming to terms with personal loss within a highly entertaining coming-of-age tale.

[And for those who were wondering, yes, this is the manga that inspired the wonderful The Cat Returns anime produced by Studio Ghibli.]

The Dead Boy Detectives by Jill Thompson
published by DC/Vertigo

Aided by the victim's friends, the two deceased gumshoes first seen in The Sandman: Season of Mists investigate a student's disappearance at an elite girls' school. Romance, plot-driven cross-dressing and other silly-serious hijinks ensue, all leading to a denouement that is perhaps a bit unexpected but satisfying.

Jill Thompson's wisdom in choosing to inject storytelling and art techniques from manga into her own lovely, loose-jointed approach is proven on every page of this book. Her ability to visually and verbally portray emotional states -- always one of her strengths -- has only been strengthened, while her previously-impressive inking abilities have only been augmented, giving her blacks a ripe lushness, her lines a sure fluidity. Thompson's command of the visual also reinforces her solid script, allowing the total narrative flow to pack an amazing amount of characterization and plot into a relatively small space. And for those who know and love Shojo [basically "young girls"] manga, Jill's understanding of the form has lead her to naturally and cleverly incorporate and spotlight loads of genre clichés. In fact, the two "fashion spread" splash pages of the boys are worth the cover price alone.

The Light Brigade by Peter J. Tomasi and Peter Snejbjerg, with Bjarne Hansen
published by DC Comics

This is one of those mini-series with a great high concept -- in this case, Angels, Monks and the US Infantry versus Demons, Nazis and Zombies for possession of The Sword of God... and the fate of the world, of course. This one doesn't just live up to the promise of its premise, it surpasses expectations.

It's mid-December, 1944, and the sky above a war torn Europe is filled with falling celestial bodies. Below them stands Chris Stavros, an American GI charged with holding an impossible position with a small band of fellow US soldiers, and a husband who has just learned that his wife died in a terrible accident that also maimed his only son. Already overtaxed by the demands of the war, Chris finds himself bereft, without hope or faith, and facing almost certain death from a large body of approaching German troops.

Stavros and company are overwhelmed despite their best efforts. Still, Chris and a few of his fellows manage to escape, but only with the obviously superhuman assistance from Mark, one of their own. Like many of the attacking German soldiers, Mark turns out to be seemingly unkillable, or at least generally unhurt by otherwise life-threatening or even life-ending injuries. It's only after a faction within the German force slaughters the rest of their number that the truth becomes apparent: The forces of darkness are at work across the globe, and they are seeking some particular object of great power which will aid their cause. The "falling stars" of the previous night were battling angels falling to earth. That was the signal Zephon, the last pure blooded Fallen, had awaited before moving with his legion of human/dark angel half-breeds and zombies to seize God's own weapon before storming the gates of heaven and unseating the Holy One. And it's now up to Stavros and the remaining few stout hearted GIs from his unit who survived to band together with some decidedly warlike monks who guard that Relic and prevent The End of The World as We Know It. All this is revealed and overseen by the otherworldly Mark, who turns out to be Marcus Longinus, a long-lived Roman Centurion pledged to prevent Armageddon, and bearer of The Spear of Destiny.

Tomasi, a long-time editor for DC, and his compatriots weave all this together into an entertaining, suspenseful, frightening, fun and ultimately moving visual tale. Every word, image and tint on the page combine to create a feast for the eye and mind. The script is well-wrought and balanced, the dialogue flows effortlessly and bears each individual characters' voice, while the action and discursive scenes interact to create a tension that's palpable. Students of the form, and even fellow pros, could learn quite a lot about constructing a good tale by studying Tomasi's work. On the visual side, Peter Snejbjerg is the perfect artist to realize this tale. Even in the quietest moments of the tale, there's something evocative and downright sensual about each line. The artist's visual storytelling is, as always, impeccable; aided by the always-superb colorist Bjarne Hansen, the art sometimes seems to dance on the page, or even fool the eye into believing that the feathers depicted on the page are, indeed, floating.

The Light Brigade is a great graphic novel. It operates on numerous levels simultaneously, and should deliver a different yet satisfying experience to each person who encounters it.

Cinema Panopticum by Thomas Ott
published by Fantagraphics Books

There's no other comic creator out there today whose work is quite like Ott's. His latest collection of silent stories is Cinema Panopticum, a remarkable grouping of short tales of quiet desperation, desolation and terror. Ostensibly connected by the book's opening circumstances -- a young girl stumbles upon a carnival filled with people and things wondrous and mundane, and eventually finds herself drawn into a tent showing several films on old fashioned individual viewers -- each of those films is then viewed in turn by the lass, thus introducing readers to "The Hotel" -- wherein a lone traveler finds out that even the safest of harbors can conceal hidden dangers, "The Champion" -- a masked wrestler undertakes the greatest challenge of his life and vanquishes his foe, "The Experiment" -- a regular guy suddenly afflicted with a strange ailment eventually learns that looking at the world in a new way might, indeed, be just what the doctor ordered, and, finally, "The Prophet" -- the titular character learns that being right isn't always all it's thought to be, before one final short film is shown to some real effect upon the girl, and so the reader. Pretty straightforward and simple stuff. Yet what Ott does with this outline is both entertaining and engrossing.

While the artist's command of his craft and materials has always been impressive before, in Cinema Panopticum his work is stunning. Ott's pen seems to have carved each page out of some dark wood or stone, and not simply laid ink on a flat surface. In addition to that surprising sense of depth and texture, the artist's figure work and ability to capture the perfect expression for the moment in every instance adds real emotional and narrative impact to the proceedings so that, no matter how unearthly events might become, the action is always firmly grounded in a stark black and white reality that Ott has -- quite literally -- scratched out upon the page. He also makes the slightest details do yeoman's work; there's not a wasted or unnecessary line in the entire book. Finally, and despite what some might think, this isn't just a "quick" or even "simple" read, although it can be approached as such. In reality, the longer one pours over the pages, the more one rereads these quiet and stark tales, the more meaning a reader gleans from them. And that's something that a whole lot of books using both words and pictures can't claim with any real conviction.

And that's enough for now, I think. Next time I'll continue in the same vein, but broaden the scope to include noteworthy art books and such.