Infinite canvas at last: QB’s favorite comics of 2008

2008 is the Year of the Webcomic. Scott McCloud’s been trying for over a decade—in a book, through his own work, by promoting the work of others—to convince the world that online comics are the new frontier. Though Diesel Sweeties, Penny Arcade, PVP, and others slowly established cult reputations, these strips mostly replicated the standard newspaper format. Three or four panels, a quick punchline, a standard rectangular shape, fewer than five major characters, and relatively short narratives were the order of the day. To make things a little worse, most webcomics are insular by design, appealing and reaching out solely to tech geeks or hipsters who are “above” reading comics and thus want anti-comics with intentionally bad art and “jokes.” It seemed that McCloud’s vision, of a comics that took hold of the web’s “infinite canvas,” was destined to be thwarted, or at least a perpetual wallflower.

Two online comics began to appear that changed things forever, and for the better.

First, let’s discuss 26 October 1998. On that day, James Kochalka drew the first entry of his American Elf comic. Kochalka set the goal of drawing a one-page diary entry, in comics form, each and every day. By the aforementioned standards, Kochalka’s work wasn’t out of the ordinary. (The shape was and has always been square instead of simply rectangular, but that’s no different than The Far Side.) Two things, however, set it apart from newspaper strips: 1. The protagonists were real people, and so were its events; and 2. Kochalka wasn’t that interested in punchlines, or even jokes. Each diary entry captured a moment but, as Kochalka always insisted, the power of the strip was in its totality, in the accumulation of entries, rather than in a single day’s epiphany.

By 2002, Kochalka had decided to take his cutesy, simple art to the web, where it’s remained—posted diligently every day—ever since. The prolific cartoonist is well known for his graphic novels and children’s comics but, increasingly, American Elf is being regarded as Kochalka’s seminal achievement. He’s produced three big collections of these sketchbook diaries. At the end of this year, he was interviewed regularly about the tenth anniversary of American Elf, which the alternative comics world (rightly) has treated the date as a major event. A crop of diary comics have cropped up, both online and in print form, since American Elf, but Kochalka was the first to use the online form to capture the minutiae of the day-by-day.

Second, let’s talk about 1 October 2001, the date in which Chris Onstad’s Achewood ambled onto the scene. True, it took Chris Onstad’s crackpot world—it’s Bloom County with the politics stripped out and a pottymouth added—three or four years to build steam. I admit that, as with a good portion of the comic’s fans, it took me three months to get on Onstad’s wavelength. He begins stories and doesn’t finish them, only to dip back into the narrative a week later. Character traits and backstories are revealed only in context of Achewood’s fully formed universe. Some strips are only a few panels long; others make you scroll down the page and involve flashbacks and daydreams. Some strips are as absurd as Monty Python, while others are as sharply realistic as anything involving anthropomorphized animals can be. (In the character of Roast Beef, Onstad has created a sublimely devastating and moving portrait of a chronic depressive, on par with Charles M. Schulz’s Charlie Brown.) Major characters disappear from the strip for months at a time.

It’s these basic inconsistencies that truly make Achewood the first great webcomic. Because it’s not bound by space and/or color limitations, a daily schedule, or audience expectations of a traditional comic strip, Achewood can have nearly infinite possibilities on each day… and (here’s the kicker) Onstad uses them. Still, it took the publication of a graphic novel drawn from the comic—The Great Outdoor Fight—to give Onstad’s opus the broader audience that it deserves. The paperbound version of Achewood has been financially and critically successful—perhaps an understatement—and has led readers to the comic’s native, free-form arena.

There are plenty of webcomics that are better drawn, with more expressive lettering, and less convoluted storytelling. But Achewood has moved webcomics into the mainstream, while also showcasing the potential of the internet to reshape the art form. For that, we owe Onstad our thanks.

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And now, on to the show: here are my five favorite comics of the year, ranked in order:

Achewood Great Outdoor Fight

1. Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad: There are a lot of characters in Achewood, but not necessarily a single protagonist. So, dipping into it is like being thrust into a dinner party composed only of people who all know each other but whom you don’t know at all. (Incidentally, “The Party” is a good place to start; at least, that’s where I finally started guffawing.) Some people dislike the art. I rather like its simplicity, which artfully disguises the complexity of the dialogue and narrative arcs, both of which -begin zigzagging and entangling as soon as you’ve got a bead on them. Onstad mercilessly lampoons male anxieties and pop culture, but his clear line and simple shadings are so iconic that—a la Scott McCloud’s formulation—I identify with them even as things get absurd. And, boy, do things get absurd. In Onstad’s first longform comic, The Great Outdoor Fight, the story begins with a drug-addict squirrel trying to create a start-up company involving ball sacks for cellphones. It ends with old-fashioned male bonding amidst monster trucks and explosions. Roast Beef and Ray Smuckles enter the greatest underground competition of all time, and live to tell the tale. The Fight doesn’t exist but Onstad makes me a believer, simply by putting the reader in media res and giving us backstory only glancingly, in situational contexts. The art keeps the craziness looking nonchalant and straightforward—the better to lull you in, make you laugh, and then wonder (later) why we think all this male aggression is normal and healthy. I laughed out loud on every page, even as—and perhaps because—I had no idea what was coming next.

Paul Goes Fishing

2. Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati: Over three long-form comics and a few short stories, Rabagliati has established himself as a king of—and here’s an oxymoron—autobiographical fiction. Like Eddie Campbell’s Alec, Michel Rabagliati uses Paul as his alter ego, lightly fictionalizing and re-organizing events from his own life to make arresting comics. Rabagliati’s thick, clean line and charmingly retro figures show off a lighter emotional tone than that of Campbell, R. Crumb, or Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Here, though, Paul goes deep. A summertime camping trip spawns reflections about he and his wife Lucie’s attempts to have a baby, which are cursed—twice—by bloody miscarriage. Rabagliati’s cute style works to lighten, but never distance us from, the wrenching content. At times, the possibility of death is so overwhelming, and my care for this couple so great, that it was difficult to turn the page. Along the way, Rabagliati gets off well-articulated riffs on modern typography, Canada’s economic downturns, and the nature of violence in boys, all the while keeping the material relevant to his main narrative. While I’ve occasionally found the Paul stories too nostalgic, Paul Goes Fishing is a triumph, and a giant step forward for an already formidable cartoonist.

Little Nothings

3. Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella by Lewis Trondheim: From the loins of James Kochalka’s American Elf, and Joe Matt’s Peepshow before it, springs Lewis Trondheim’s diary comic. Trondheim’s as funny (though not as profane) as Matt, and he anthropomorphizes himself and his world (as does Kochalka), but his line and use of color is zippier and jazzier than either. Trondheim’s comedy veers to slapstick and vaudeville, and each of his days evidently yields a moment of pure hilarity. The laughs might distract you from Trondheim’s gorgeous watercolor brushwork, the wonderful flows he creates on the page without the use of proper panels, the tightness of his page-long narratives, or the cohesive sweep of a momentous year in his life. (The Curse of the Umbrella documents the year that Trondheim won Grand Prize at the Angoulême Festival.) But don’t be fooled, just because you’re laughing at Trondheim spending a whole day fooling around with a toy skyscraper, or a whole vacation scared to death of mosquitoes. Each panel is transcendent comics gold. I can’t wait for volume 2.

Moomin book 3

4. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip [book 3]: Drawn & Quarterly is now more than halfway through its deluxe printing of Jansson’s brilliant strip, and there’s no signs of wear. This volume features five stories that all include Jansson’s quick, thin line and her brisk, turn-on-a-dime storytelling. Politics and social systems seep into the mix this time around, and Jansson deftly skewers all manner of debates about law and order, levels of freedom, and even terrorism. Jansson loved her characters but that doesn’t stop her from broadcasting their foibles or looking at Moominvalley through a jaundiced, gently scolding eye. In terms of backgrounds, she’s still a minimalist but conveys nature—and the precise movement of animals—so beautifully than a few well-placed lines conjure up an entire, wild natural world.

I Left My Arse in San Francisco

5. The K Chronicles: I Left My Arse in San Francisco by Keith Knight: Autobiography and strips seem to be central themes in this year’s selections, sure, but Knight’s K Chronicles strip features much more than navelgazing and periodicity. For a decade, his weekly strip has mixed autobiography, political humor, absurdity, and wild fantasy in equal measures. That by itself would make it one of the most distinctive and innovative strips being produced. In this strip, American pop culture, though, gets filtered through an African American consciousness, which is rare on the newspaper pages (alternative or not). This fifth collection counts as a landmark. The art reaches a high, emphasizing exaggeration, simplicity, and expressive lettering. Knight’s stories get increasingly personal, detailing: the quotidian life of an interracial couple (okay, so it hits a personal note for me), his wife’s cancer scare, his raw anger at the Bush administration (okay, so it’s doubly personal for me), and ends on a note of hope as he announces his wife’s pregnancy. Knight connects his life to the ins and outs of the American scene with brio, with crude wit, with jazzy one-liners, and with joy at the simple pleasures. (For an introduction to Knight, and to see his artistic evolution, seek out The Complete K Chronicles, which collects the first four volumes and adds commentary.)

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Honorable mentions:

The Hernandez brothers, prolific as always, get more than one mention. The first issue of the once-again retooled Love and Rockets is a doozy, with contributions by Gilbert, Jaime, and a rare appearance by Mario. Jaime puts the “rockets” back into the title with a superhero that brings back some old characters, and ends on a cliffhanger. Gilbert goes for some surreal short stories of various genres. Mario’s story, drawn by Gilbert, is Mexican psychedelic vaudeville—yes, I meant all that. It doesn’t all work but the brothers continue to stretch the limits of their considerable skills and comics’ formal characteristics. In Speak of the Devil, Gilbert continues his turn toward self-contained graphic novels. This one begins with teen voyeurism and turns bloody and vicious in a hurry. The art is minimalist and haunting, and the narrative hurtles, but the character motivations are hazy and under-explained. There’s perhaps nothing behind their dead eyes and slashing knives, which makes the tale all the scarier. Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra wrapped up Y: The Last Man with the appropriately titled final volume, Whys and Wherefores. The gender apocalypse ends on a wistful downbeat that features glimmers of hope, a turn away from the ultraviolence that’s been the series’ hallmark, and a perfect escape. Scott McCloud’s Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection (1987-1991) did so much for the artform—introducing manga tropes to American audiences, injecting the superhero genre with a dose of social realism, rescuing it from the “dark” overtones of Watchmen clones and returning it to its proudly optimistic roots without becoming retro—that I wish I liked McCloud’s craftsmanship more. Everything’s there except for a clunky line, which admittedly improves as the comic progresses. Dorothy Gambrell’s online Cat and Girl continues her acerbic, Leftist (but also Left-skewering), comedy of the aforementioned characters in an indifferent universe. Those thin, dry lines perfectly match Gambrell’s thoroughly unsentimental punchlines.

Criticism: If the last two years have heralded online comics, they’ve also seen the rise of serious comics criticism on the web. A plethora of sites, many of which you’ll find in my blogroll, testify to the fact that the best, least condescending, most in-depth writing on comics is found online. For my money, the best site is Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield’s Thought Balloonists. They wax long on a variety of genres, aesthetics, and artists, and are both adept with discussing both form and content in considerable detail. Plus, they’re witty without being glib, accessible while also maintaining erudition. I’d call them the Siskel and Ebert of comics criticism, but Hatfield and Fischer get more “airtime.”

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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