Sorry for the slight delay…
I’m biased against men-in-tights comics but, even so, 2006 was a groundbreaking and stellar year in medium, in a way that rivals 1999 for cinema. Women cartoonists forced their way into popular acclaim and mainstream critical discourse. Comics began to address 9/11 in practically every genre, to mixed results. Y: The Last Man pushed on with its examination of gender politics, all under the mask of high-falutin’ adventure and schlock violence. Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly continued to reprint fantastic newspaper strips (Moomin, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Dennis the Menace, Popeye, Krazy Kat), peppering these lavishly produced volumes with critical commentary and tidbits, revealing that comics has a history and a canon worthy of the rest of 20th-century art.
The alternative/underground vanguard keeps on keepin’ on. R. Crumb published his portraits of blues/country/early-jazz musicians; the slashes are intentional—Crumb shows how the boundaries between the genres were blurred in the early part of the last century). Joe Matt got out of his bed and published the first new issue of Peepshow in five years. Dylan Horrocks got out two issues of Atlas within twelve months, wiping away a four-year drought. Kim Deitch brought forth Shadowland, a collection of his interconnected, cutely drawn but eerily disturbing stories from the 1980s.
Top Shelf was, until 2006, considered the weird redheaded stepchild of fellow alternative publishers, well behind the prestige of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. That’s unfair, of course—Top Shelf did publish Craig Thompson’s Good-Bye Chunky Rice and Blankets, after all. In 2006, however, Top Shelf had the courage to publish Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s art-porn epic Lost Girls, a book that has ended up on so many best-of lists that I lost track, and that has sold so well that Top Shelf can swim in money for the next couple of years. (It also reprinted Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, thank God.) It’s now a major player.
Another alternative press appeared and garnered attention—First Second Books. With its focus on European stars Lewis Trondheim, Eddie Campbell, and Joann Sfar, and on all-ages narratives that are still aesthetically challenging, First Second positioned itself as providing comics that are distinct from the aforementioned alternative presses.
Not that the mainstream crowd didn’t try to dig into the alternative branch. Gilbert Hernandez’s Sloth, one of this year’s most avant-garde and deeply awarding works, was published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. Two traditional book presses published two of the most acclaimed graphic novels of 2006: Pantheon Books published Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken with Plums and Houghton Mifflin put out Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
And, apparently, this manga thing is for real.
So, the field of 2006 comics was both wide and deep. That makes choosing my favorites—and I read a lot of comics this year—very, very difficult. It’s a nice problem to have. So, without further adieu, here we go.
#1: Get A Life by Dupuy and Berberian. For 20 years, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian have written and drawn—it’s impossible to tell where one’s hand ends and the other begins—their Monsieur Jean stories, chronicling the life of this moderately successful Parisian writer. These stories of city life are low-key, funny, and mature about love, friendship, and jobs. The Dupuy-Berberian style is a jazzy clear-line that conveys more in a few loops about a person’s personality and a neighborhood’s mood than a deep-focus photograph. This sexy breeziness in the art hides how dead-on the stories are about the travails of adulthood. The stories meander, but snap to attention just when you think they’re trailing into quiet, well-observed nothings. Get A Life collects several stories about our Jean—and he comes to seem like “our” man pretty quickly—and reproduces them in rich, subtle full-color. (They’re superb colorists.) Two of the longer Monsieur Jean stories have appeared in Drawn & Quarterly’s annual big anthology. For most, though, Get A Life represents the first time such a large body of Dupuy-Berberian’s work has been available in English. Run, do not walk, to buy it.
#2: Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez. Sloth might be Gilbert Hernandez’s first true graphic novel, in that it’s the first really long narrative comic he’s published that wasn’t originally seen in serialized form. In any case, it represents a sea change from his previous, equally great work. For one thing, it consciously draws from cinema—with wide panels that overwhelm the page, with landscape shots and close-ups that look like expansive movie screens. The pacing, as befits the book’s title, is slower than his Love and Rockets stuff; even his imagined biography Poison River moves in jolts and odd fragments. The large-scale black-and-white art pulls us into Sloth’s sinister dream world, but it’s the rich characters and strong writing that hold us. It’s the dream vision that ultimately feels different from Hernandez’s earlier work. Sloth has a lulling grace that never feels choppy or unfinished, even though it leaves several narrative threads tantalizingly open, and never bothers to explain its fundamental incidents. Lovely, enchanting, and supremely sexy, it’s a masterpiece by any standard, and perhaps points to a new direction in the cartoonist’s brilliant career. (For a fuller appreciation, go here.)
#3: Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip [volume 1]. Once every other year or so, I’m introduced to a work of art that makes me slap my forehead and wonder how I’ve missed this for so long. In 2006, it was Tove Jansson and her Moomin. Her strips possess quiet, insistent humor, enchanting narratives that digress into odd whims, and beautifully drawn flora and fauna. All the characters—even those that never speak—are fully realized, interesting, and funny creations. Jansson’s pacing is always just-so, moving things forward while giving the impression of stillness and stability. This handsomely produced volume, with full-color art painted directly onto the cloth binding, should charm any reader. If the cover doesn’t grab you, the interior will.
#4: We Are on Our Own by Miriam Katin. There hasn’t been a better debut in years. In 1944, Esther Levy and her young daughter Miriam fled Budapest, just a step ahead of the Nazis. They spend the rest of the war hiding from them and from their supposed saviors, the Russians, who turn out to be just as bad. This, in essence, is the story of We Are on Our Own, told from memory and recollected material by that daughter. She was old enough to remember the fear and day-to-day details, but not old enough to add it up without help from her still-living mother and relatives who survived the Holocaust. Katin’s art is heavily detailed and dramatic, but is done in scratchy gray pencil—the whole thing looks like the perfect sketchbook. It’s appropriate; the inherent instability of her lines and shadows underscores how shaky and wispy their lives were during this critical moment. Even in the full-color flash-forwards to the present look like they could be wiped away. The unsettled, unsettling art reflects the protagonists’ flight during WWII, and their subsequent flight from God after it.
#5: Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. In Castle Waiting, friends are the family you choose. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how real life is, too. In any case, a group of misfits, outcasts, free spirits, and rebels converge on the mythical, enchanted Castle Waiting, and somehow form a family. Some of the folks are human, and some aren’t, but all have humanlike personalities—even the water sprite and the bird-like creature (Rackham) who runs the place. Each has his or her reasons to settle here. This panoply of kindly oddballs must contend with each other’s quirks, do chores, and settle into Castle Waiting. They all pull their weight. It’s tempting to say that Medley’s vision—funny, full of conflict, deeply feminist—is a microcosm of a modern multi-ethnic society. It is that, of course, but saying so makes Castle Waiting sound much more academic (and much less fun) than it is. Medley is fond of strange creatures, puns that draw on mythology and folklore, jokes about fantasy literature, and ribald slapstick that’s just barely appropriate for kids. Her thick line and bold hatchmarking makes her comics look like woodcuts. That sort of implied permanence gives the book an aura of myth. Indeed, the whole thing’s set (like a lot of fantasy fiction) in some undetermined, vaguely medieval past. But Medley’s concerns, and the diction throughout, are thoroughly modern and thoroughly human.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was an affecting family history and coming-out memoir, although its focus was so self-consciously literary and text-driven than Bechdel’s beautiful art was often overshadowed. In Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi finally conquered the limitations of her über-minimalist drawing style and disjointed storytelling method to create an engaging portrait of an irascible charmer. Kim Deitch’s Shadowland uses vaudeville, the tent show circuit, and circus life as means to explore the seedy underbelly of American culture. You’ll never again look at the early 20th century with rose-tinted glasses. For sheer weirdness and grotesquerie, you can’t beat Lewis Trondheim’s A.L.I.E.E.N., which interweaves a series of wordless comics stories involving cruel aliens, sick humor, and lots and lots of poop.