After more than a decade away from following continuing comics series, and from reading any monthly Marvel or DC titles, I got pulled back in. I can’t fully explain it. While I’m far from becoming a regular at Action Island Comics—they don’t carry enough Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, or other independent labels for my tastes—I’m now avidly following three series, and they ain’t highbrow, either. Monthly comics are like crack—expensive, sordid, and unhealthy in regular doses.
I blame TV. Since I’ve given up on following any regular shows—the writers’ strike has helped—and I can catch my favorites (Weeds, The Wire, various British series) on DVD, I’m missing my fix of regular characters, recurring storylines, and convoluted cliffhanger plots. Even in my youth, I knew the Marvel Universe I obsessed over was essentially soap opera for boys; under those tights and sculpted muscles, there lurked the hearts of romance novels and melodramatic schlock. Hell, the city-destroying battles and visual effects were more heightened (and ridiculous) melodrama than anything dished out by The Young and the Restless.
It would be nice to say that I’ve graduated to finer things, and that’s partly true, but it’s also true that I moved back to superheroes and b-movie adventurism, like the prodigal son returning home to live in his parents’ basement after a sojourn to the Real World.
So, this year’s favorites reflect my rediscovery of serial pulp, whether as regularly appearing comic books or newspaper strips. With regard to the latter, we’re living in boom times. The late, lamented Kitchen Sink Press was a pioneer in reprinting older strips with contextual materials. Fantagraphics has kept the tradition alive, bringing 50-year-old (or earlier) strips to contemporary audiences. It’s churning out lovely reissues of the complete Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and Dennis the Menace, and have added E.C. Segar’s Popeye and well-designed volumes of pin-up cartoons by overlooked cartoonists. They’re putting Walt Kelly’s Pogo into the mix, designed by Bone’s Jeff Smith, this year, which means that maybe the best American newspaper strip ever produced is getting a first-class showcase. Drawn & Quarterly continues its masterful reprints of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley and Tove Jansson’s Moomin, which means the press is doing God’s work. NBM inaugurated its series of reprinted screwball strips with Bud Fisher’s groundbreaking Mutt & Jeff; let’s hope this continues.
Even academic presses are getting with the program: University Press of Mississippi (full disclosure: it signs my paychecks) released Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, a deluxe 600-page collection that includes the Swiss cartoonist’s unfinished story fragments and sketches, translated from the French and extensively contextualized by comics historian David Kunzle. Töpffer’s work, from the mid-nineteenth century, place the comic strip’s origins in Europe, about a half-century before the common understanding of the form’s ascension with Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, so this is revolutionary stuff.
All of this is to say that now’s a damn fine time to be introduced to the richness of comics’ form and history. What follows is my highly opinionated attempt to lead you to 2007’s greatest stuff. It can’t possibly be definitive but it will definitely be idiosyncratic, pulpier, and longer in the tooth than last year’s list. Enjoy.
#1: The Arrival by Shaun Tan: I’ve written at length about Tan’s masterpiece here, so I won’t repeat myself too much in this space. Stylistically, the comic works as a deft homage to Chris Van Allsburg, but Tan’s his own man. His mix of the mundane and the magical cleanly evokes the quintessential immigrant’s voyage to a new land, with all the strangeness and cultural adjustment that this implies. The narrative manages to be complex and heart-wrenching without the use of a single speech balloon or sound cue. Even the book’s packaging and design add to its depth, giving the aura of a careworn old photograph—the fantastical happenings inside seem historical and everyday, given the sepia tone and perfectly placed “disintegration” and “folds,” which throws the reader off his balance. Very little that I’ve read—comics or literature—has been as immediately absorbing, or lingered as long in my mind, as The Arrival.
#2: Sundays with Walt & Skeezix: 1921 through 1934 by Frank King: As with #1, I’ve said my piece. Simply put, this is the best reissue of a newspaper strip—in design, presentation, contextual and supplemental materials, in the sheer brilliance of the comic itself—that I’ve ever seen. King’s gently funny tales of a foster father and his son are, page by big page, exquisite. The cartoonist’s bold, expansive colors are continually undercut by his fragile, thin line, and Walt’s ever-present worries about the always wandering baby Skeezix. The book’s trim size is larger than some coffee tables, and the contents are worth more than most pieces of furniture. It’s a rare treasure.
#3: Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip [volume 2]: Book 2 of the five-part collection finds the hippo-like Moomins and their oddly-shaped pals absorbed in unrequited love, petty competitions, squabbles, deep bouts of depression, and latent alcoholism. Jansson’s strip appeared from 1954 to 1959, and her comics show the influence of the newly ascendant psychotherapy of the period and—probably by osmosis—the work of her fellow Scandinavian Ingmar Bergman. On the whole, though, melancholia’s never been so funny. Each of the four stories here ends happily enough, but the joy is hard-earned and undoubtedly short-lived. Jansson’s art shows confidence in the creatures’ just-so gestures, and her design sense is so inventive that she frequently uses background elements (branches, silverware, weapons) as panel borders without ever cluttering up the strip. Her line jolts as freshly as if it were animated.
#4: New Tales of Old Palomar [3-part series] by Gilbert Hernandez: Even after almost three decades, Hernandez finds new stories and new angles to tell about his fictional Central American town of Palomar. Each 32-pager focuses on a single narrative about a beloved character, but captures the whole town’s presence at the same time. He relies less on words than ever before, and the huge panels and striking action remind us of a movie screen; artistically and narratively, he’s bold and assured. You don’t need to know the backstory of Love and Rockets to love these, nor do you even need to read them in order—each issue works totally on its own. (In fact, this is a pretty good introduction to Beto’s world, and it’s mostly kid-friendly to boot.) Taken together, though, the miniseries gives proof that the cartoonist’s universe is as weird, wonderful, and expansive as any community cooked up by William Faulkner or Wendell Berry. From the looks of things, Beto will have plenty to tell us about Palomar as the decades roll by.
#5: Will Eisner’s The Spirit by Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, and Dave Stewart: It should have been a disaster. Why bother reinventing one of American comics’ seminal masterworks for the iPod generation, with new stories and art by someone who can’t possibly be as good a draftsman as Eisner? But this team—writer/penciler Darwyn Cooke, inker J. Bone, and colorist Dave Stewart—justifies the resurrection (once again) of undead hero Denny Colt. First things first: it’s time to face facts, because Eisner’s been dead long enough. As brilliant as he was, his writing was plodding and often lacked nuance. He descended to some of the worst racial stereotypes of his era. (The Spirit’s “Girl Friday,” Ebony White, might as well say “sho nuff” and “yessum” with every breath; he’s the embodiment of blackface minstrelsy.) His pages were exercises in formal genius—the strip probably influenced film noir as much as vice versa—but the narratives were too on-the-nose in the best of circumstances. The series could use some updating. Cooke doesn’t even try to emulate Eisner’s figures but instead opts for manga-influenced character design, and his stories have a sharp satirical bite. Black folks, women, and homosexuals have a better time of it here, and are sympathetically portrayed. The jazzy, quick lines mirror the sly, sexy storylines—there’s still plenty of danger, dames, and derring-do. The femmes fatale are particular joys; watching the Spirit negotiate with, and be continually duped by, these hot-cha women brings a grin to the face. (The covers are sultry, lurid delights.) Cooke and company keep the noir flourishes of the original comic—off-kilter angles, a certain moral ambiguity, high-contrast lighting—but the dialogue’s funnier. Even better, most issues are stand-alone episodes, so there’s no excuse for my addiction to the series… except, of course, that it’s terrific.
Gilbert Hernandez had a banner year. Along with the aforementioned New Tales of Old Palomar, he issued the long-form Chance in Hell, a violent and desolate saga, and started the six-issue Speak of the Devil series, which promises to be just as sordid and sleazy. When all’s done, the latter might even be great—the nighttime imagery mesmerizes, and his girl voyeur turns the male gaze on its head. John Porcellino’s King-Cat Classix offers a retrospective of his work that’s a capsule history of the minicomics revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. In Aya, writer Marguerite Abouet and artist Clément Oubrerie create a quick-witted and breezy portrait of 1970s West Africa. Abouet’s native Ivory Coast, seen through the eyes of protganoist Aya, comes vividly to life in a meandering narrative about layabouts, young lovers, hard partying, and the coming responsibilities of adulthood. Oubrerie’s art—delightful colors, a thin and shaky line characteristic of contemporary French comics, a focused eye on minutiae of architecture and décor—shows the region’s growing pains toward modernization with snappy grace. The book’s glossary even includes recipes and fashion tips mentioned in the comic. I can’t wait for the duo’s second volume. And Y: The Last Man rolls along precipitously towards its conclusion. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra up the ante on their already tense and action-filled tale—a plague of unknown origin kills every male mammal except for one man and his pet monkey Ampersand—with a new collection of the comic, Motherland (volume 9). I still don’t quite know what’s coming, but it manages to make philosophical debates about gender roles and bio-engineering quite riveting and deadly, so I’m hooked.
Criticism: The jacket copy for Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics bloviates too much by half: “The first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism by the leading critic in the field.” Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1992) is better-articulated theory—in fact, the first third of Wolk’s tome expends too much energy hedging bets and explaining what he doesn’t believe about comics than what he does. As a critic, he is, by his own admission, too embedded in American comics (and he’s primarily focused on graphic novels at that) to be broadly knowledgeable or convincing. He’s hardly the leading critic, particularly once you look to France and Belgium, where comics criticism has flourished in the newspapers and the academy for a couple of decades. He loves superheroes too much for his own good. Still, the essay collection is a watershed for comics criticism, as it’s one of the first volumes of criticism intended for a general audience, published by a trade press, and shows that—if nothing else—the artform has arrived as a cultural norm. My caveats aside, Wolk is a terrific, conversational writer with diverse tastes; he loves the underground as much as the mainstream. His essays penetrate underneath surface details and received ideas about artists, form, and comics history, and he got me to seek out a mainstream adventure yarn (Grant Morrison’s mind-blowing The Invisibles) that I would have otherwise dismissed. Even when he’s picking apart things I love, Wolk is so enthusiastic about the ninth art that I found myself writing in the margins and making lists of things I had to seek out on his recommendation.