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Best Comics of 2016: An International Perspective:

Year in Review

Once again, I’ve approached my international correspondents and connoisseurs to select their most favourite home-grown comics publications of last year and offer their considered opinions. I hope you enjoy exploring their recommendations and reviews of the Best of 2016 from Brazil, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Serbia and Singapore. Let me send my warmest thanks to Carlos Baptista, Matthias Wivel, Harri Römpötti, Adrian Kinnaird, Žika Tamburić and Lim Cheng Tju for their considered contributions this time…

BRAZIL - DENMARK - FINLAND - NEW ZEALAND - SERBIA - SINGAPORE


Brazil

Selected by Carlos Baptista
Selected by Carlos Baptista
Carlos Eugênio Baptista is an award-winning comics writer and researcher. He began working in the Eighties writing horror comics. Later on, with artist Allan Alex, he created Nonô Jacaré, the taxicab driver who appeared in a number of different comic books. After that, some graphic novels followed, one of them for the Italian market. He’s also been writing about comics in a number of specialised publications since the Nineties. His book Almanaque dos Quadrinhos won an award of “best nonfiction book for young people” in the year it was published. He´s also worked as curator and translator at a number of international Brazilian comics events. In 2014 he adapted into comics, with a number of artists, Night at the Inn, a classic short story book by Brazilian romantic writer, Álvares de Azevedo. Carlos also saw the new edition of The Fractured Night, his collaboration with artist Hélio Jesuíno, about a peculiar family’s life and travels.


Carolina
by João Pinheiro & Sirene Barbosa
Editora Veneta

This reviewer does not believe one should talk consecutively about two works from the same author, especially if he’s a newcomer, under the penalty of becoming a hindrance to his development. The person may get convinced he is above failing, making bad choices, or… However, for every rule there is at least one good exception, and this is precisely such a case. Artist/writer João Pinheiro debuted last year with a tremendous book on William Burroughs, entirely in blue and white, in which he explored the life and work of this tremendous poet to great effect.
Well, this year, Pinheiro has entirely changed his subject and approach, with good help from his accomplice and collaborator, writer Sirlene Barbosa, a PhD student in Education from PUC-SP and a Portuguese language teacher. Their new book, Carolina, is about the life and work of a tremendous maverick, Carolina Maria de Jesus, the first ever slum-dweller to write and publish books in Brazil. In the early Sixties, Carolina’s work surprised everybody in the country, given her social origin (she truly came from the bottom of the heap) and the quality of her work. Her book Quarto de despejo ( ‘Homeless Bedroom’, more or less) created quite a stir and attracted a lot of attention, not least because it seemed quite impossible. The media went wild and such acclaimed writers as Clarice Lispector (whose tremendous work, marvelous in its own right, only now seems to be finding an international public, due to the fact she’s finally been translated to English) saluted Carolina as an equal, an event which changed the woman’s life.
For a brief, but important while, Carolina Maria de Jesus’ literary fame took her out of the slum, in our country known traditionally known as ‘favela’. This word originally referred to the vegetation that only found its way to the country’s more or less developed southern regions, because they came down in the boots of the soldiers, whom the government promised to give homes, after they defeated more than one popular revolt in the northeast, but the government never truly delivered to them. Not until the soldiers took to the hills, or the swampland, where they established themselves, thus creating a strong social problem which remains largely unsolved to this day.
Carolina’s book showed readers what it meant to live in such precarious places, and even if she created characters and fiction, the accuracy and intimacy of her depiction remain a very trustworthy source of information to this very day. Also, the way she built characters and situations is not only full of detail but psychologically very precise. João’s book profits from all of this and depicts slums and slum life with rare accuracy, taking comics where they’ve never been before.  The quality and breadth of his visual research are truly breathtaking, something no superpower can hope to touch.
His stark black-and-white renderings in a slow but very effective visual rhythm are entirely at the service of depicting not only the main parts of her book, but also the author’s tremendous life and trajectory, and make for very provocative reading. Carolina really gets the reader thinking, particularly in this current moment when Carolina Maria de Jesus seems almost entirely forgotten. This book is an achievement very few Brazilian comics can aspire to. 


Lavagem (‘The Wash’)
by Shiko
Editora Mino

This is a highly unlikely book. The author Shiko seems to have made careful homework studying horror comics. He’s applied to them the growing, widespread fear of organised religion that is growing in this country almost as fast as religious fanaticism. Nothing supernatural happens in Lavagem, but plenty of horrific things, depicted with stark realism, do! It is a strong testimony of the consequences which religious fanaticism, combined intense rage and furious solitude, can bring about. This 66-page graphic novel has only got three characters (not counting the pigs), a fact which indicates how deeply the author explores the psychology of the people he’s created.
One peculiar characteristic of the book is the complete absence of narrative captions. We follow the story and understand the characters through the complete mastery of physiognomy and anatomy which Shiko achieves, and also through his very well-written dialogue, not to mention his creative use of the narrative weapons at his disposal, particularly the lettering. The fact that he pulls no punches only adds to the expressiveness of this sinister, but utterly realistic tale.
In contemporary Brazilian Portuguese, Lavagem (‘The Wash’) stands for the kind of low-quality mixed food one feeds to pigs. And the pigs do get very well fed! This very lonely couple lives off the pigs, which the husband cares for way better than he cares for his wife. One fateful afternoon, they receive a visit from a man of God, a preacher with whom they engage in a very eventful conversation. This conversation is portrayed in moody dreamlike tones, even if there aren’t any grey panels in the story. Shiko does it with a nightmarish rhythm,  and even if his visual style could well be called ‘heroic’, this is not the direction he follows, at least not in this book. There are no other words to describe his work, but ‘slow realism’, a dance-like narrative displaying complete absence of romanticism.
The fact that the story manages to tell itself in very unflinching terms, and yet finishes with a surprising attitude, brings us some unlikely optimism. Shiko depicts some unexpected breezes of renewal, which makes us think. There aren’t very many such stories going on today, mixing cruelty and hopefulness, and the fact that Shiko has managed to bring a small smile to this reviewer’s lips is a boon.
English-speaking artists such as John Severin and Jack Davis may well have followed this road before, but they’ve never told such long stories, or depicted misbegotten situations in such realistic, black-and-white terms. Another name which comes to mind is David Lloyd’s, but his realism has never followed such a dreamlike rhythm. I’m not saying Shiko’s work looks any of theirs, mind you! Shiko is very much his own man. And he’s spread his own wings… But we might well say he belongs in their ‘family’… not an easy feat, by any means!   


Modelo Vivo (‘Live Model’)
by Laertes
Editora Barricada

It’s no news that Laerte Coutinho remains one of Brazil’s most complete comics artist and writers, and this slightly eccentric piece of work shows us very well where this accomplished master’s sensibilities have taken him. Or is it her? Since he has taken on his transgender situation, his work has changed very little, but it does depict his new focus very well. Thankfully Laerte has never stopped working, and his well-established trajectory is very well documented in this compilation, showing us he remains as daring, creative and funny as ever.
Modelo Vivo is a compilation, but Laerte has created a new story specifically for it, and it shows no great change in his characteristically zany sense of humour. The true novelty shows up in the unexpected colour illustrations that punctuate the book. Laerte has taken on the depiction of a number of nude drawings, mostly in colour, in which he forgets for a little while the fact that people will buy the book looking for his jokes, to explore his enjoyment of drawing nude people. These colour illustrations haven’t been published anywhere else and show the artist groping for his freedom.
As the stories he’s chosen to include are all somewhat experimental, even if they’ve been previously published, the book shows us that he has chosen to forego the easy joke, and readers may delight in his ability to depict mood and subtlety, over his previously more objective work. The strips and stories he’s chosen to include are here to tell us he’s more interested in showing us his previously far more discreet sensibilities and his enjoyment of drawing. This reviewer sees no problem with that, even if the book thus tells us he may well be getting a little tired of his previous ‘objectiveness’. To that effect, even if humour is quite present, it does indicate the artist may be more than a little tired of being the funny person in the party. Provided he does not abandon comics as a whole, it’s nice to see a change of pace. One does hope this is not a farewell.


Denmark

Selected by Matthias Wivel

Matthias Wivel is Curator of Sixteenth-Century Italian Paintings at the National Gallery, London. He is a co-founder of the Danish Comics Council, the editor of several comics anthologies, including Kolor Klimax (Fantagraphics, 2012), and has written comics criticism for two decades. He writes regularly for The Comics Journal and his own blog Metabunker.


Hvad føler du lige nu? (‘What are you feeling right now?’)
by Philip Ytournel
Aben maler

Ytournel is the brightest and probably funniest newspaper cartoonist in Denmark. At their best, his strips break the old, long-established boundaries in terms of format, medium and — most importantly — humour, demonstrating that editorial cartooning can be different and creative, in spite of prescriptive tradition. And he is just plain funny, blending political with keenly observed, social satire. He has an eye for the absurdity and vanity in the banal details of diction and posture that other cartoonists either don’t notice or find too shallow to mine for commentary. This book collects his best work from more than a decade’s worth of work at the daily newspaper Politiken, including his brilliant 2013 comics inset on Søren Kierkegaard, written and drawn on the occasion of the world-famous Danish philosopher’s bicentenary. In it, he not only provides an ‘Existentialism for Beginners-type intro, but also comments hilariously on recent reception history and attendant controversy, and most poignantly situates Kierkegaard’s relevance to the average life of an average person wanting to be a football coach. 


Dansker (’Dane’)
by Halfdan Pisket
Fahrenheit

The third and final volume in Pisket’s poetic and hard-hitting biography of his Armenian-Turkish immigrant father focuses on his slow and always imperfect settlement, not only in Danish society but into his role as father. Here are links to my reviews on this site of the first volume and . Through his David B-esque blank writing and suggestive, symbolist chiaroscuro, Pisket achieves a remarkable feat of hermeneutic empathy in portraying his own young self externally — through the eyes of his traumatised, criminal and in many ways irresponsible father. We come to understand, even sympathise with him, and we sense that the cartoonist himself does too, through the act of writing and drawing it out. While this means that the more ambiguous feelings expressed through his portrayal in the more powerful earlier volumes are somewhat neglected, it is beautifully moving.


Finland

Selected by Harri Römpötti

Harri Römpötti is a freelance Helsinki-based journalist specialising in comics, cinema and music. He’s written and edited books on Finnish comics and curated exhibtions in Helsinki and abroad together with Ville Hänninen.


Kannas (‘Isthmus’)
by Hanneriina MoisseinenKreegah Bundolo

Hanneriina Moisseinen’s latest book takes us to the summer 1944 in Karelia, Eastern Finland. Finland is losing the war against the Soviet Union and the Kannas region is being evacuated. At the time the population took their cattle with them. Many people walked, the luckiest had shoes. The main characters are a shell-shocked soldier, a maid – and cows. Instead of heroic battles, Moisseinen shows the reality where survival depended mostly on luck rather than actions. Moisseinen is drawn in pencil. Grey tones emphasise the messiness of the war. In addition, Moisseinen has been digging up photos from the Finnish War Archive. Sometimes photos take several pages amidst her drawings. The incorporation of photos into comics is exceptional. Moisseinen does not claim that they would be strictly part of the narrative in the same sense as the panels. But they do portray very similar situations and lend realism to the narration by her stylised drawings. The biggest achievement of Kannas is that it seems to give readers a sensation of what the war felt like, especially from the point of view of civilians and half-dead combatants. That’s no small feat in any medium. Kannas achieved record visibility in mainstream media for a comic book in Finland, and Moisseinen won the State Prize for comics for her work. Kannas is published with subtitled English translations.



Black Peider: Itse
by Petteri Tikkanen
Daada

The sound of music is not audible in comics but Petteri Tikkanen gets close. He’s known for his realistic tales about the growing up of Kanerva and Eero. But as a wrestling character Black Peider, he also makes raunchy rock music and autobiographical comics, such as in this book. Most of the strips are made for a rock magazine Rumba. They are Tikkanen’s or Black Peider’s reactions to music, mostly gigs but sometimes records. They are criticism in comics form, a bit like Art Spiegelman occasionally makes. Tikkanen draws his youngsters with a refined style, close to clear line, whereas he draws these rock comics plain and simple, in bare but expressive images. The most impressive achievement here is that Tikkanen makes it easy for the reader to imagine the experience and excitement of a good live gig.


Suurin piirtein Samuel
by Tommi Musturi
Boing Being

Suurin piirtein Samuel has been published in ten countries, in English by Fantagraphics as Simply Samuel. It’s Musturi’s sequel to his breakthrough book Samuelin matkassa (2009). The ghost-like humanoid Samuel wanders in a world of psychedelic colours and surreal turmoil. He was born from a teardrop only to regress from old age to the womb. He breaks the panel border by a sledgehammer to escape from his own wordless story. The pages teem with sex and violence, shapeshifting and cosmic visions. There is no punctuation between short fragments. The book feels breathtakingly chaotic. The details demand several readings. Experiencing it is harder than with the first Samuel book, but almost as rewarding.



Nimettömien hautojen maa (‘The Land of the Nameless Graves’)
by Ossi Hiekkala
Arktinen Banaani

The most accomplished debut of last year comes from an experienced illustrator Ossi Hiekkala. It is a collection of three short crime stories. True to the genre’s traditions, Hiekkala draws in a realistic style which is rather rare in contemporary Finnish comics. Hiekkala manages to move the genre conventions to everyday Finland in an exceptionally believable way. Violence and crime stem not only from organised crime like drug-trafficking but also from domestic problems and personal reasons. The extra colour blue emphasises the cold atmosphere of the drawings. Hiekkala’s book is a confident example of entertainment, something nowadays rare in Finland’s small output better known for arty comics.

 

New Zealand

Selected by Adrian Kinnaird

Adrian Kinnaird has been involved in the New Zealand comics community as a cartoonist, writer and blogger for almost two decades. He is the author of From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics published by Random House NZ in 2013, and is co-founder of Earth’s End Publishing, a boutique publishing house dedicated to producing New Zealand comics and graphic novels. For more information, you can visit his blog…  


Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics
edited by Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing & Indira Neville
Beatnik Publishing

Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics is a collaborative survey of the past twenty years of New Zealand women’s comics. Bringing together over 60 contributors from all walks of life, the brief was simple: to submit any works of your choosing, as well as any three words to be passed on to another contributor to interpret into a single strip comic, maximising this one-off opportunity for collaboration in the very first anthology of its kind. Although they have been under-represented in the New Zealand history books, women in New Zealand make comics. They make slick professional comics and crafty homemade ones. They are found in zines and magazines, tumblrs, twitter feeds, shoe boxes, art galleries, painted on old tea trays and brochures, stuck on fridges, tattooed on forearms. And now they’re also here, in this book. To fully appreciate the diversity of comics created in New Zealand, this is an essential purchase for your comics collection.


Mansfield and Me
by Sarah Laing
Victoria University Press

Katherine Mansfield is a literary giant in New Zealand, but she had to leave the country to become one. She wrote, ‘Oh to be a writer, a real writer.’ And a real writer she was, until she died at age 34 of tuberculosis. The only writer Virginia Woolf was jealous of, Mansfield hung out with the modernists, lost her brother in World War I, dabbled in Alistair Crowley’s druggy occult gatherings and spent her last days in a Fontainebleu commune with Olgivanna, Frank Lloyd Wright’s future wife. She was as famous for her letters and diaries as for her short stories. Sarah Laing wanted to be a real writer, too. A writer as famous as Katherine Mansfield, but not as tortured. Mansfield and Me charts her journey towards publication and parenthood against Mansfield’s dramatic story, set in London, Paris, New York and New Zealand. Part memoir, part biography, part fantasy, it examines how our lives connect to those of our heroes. This is a very personal memoir, produced in vibrant watercolour artwork written in Laing’s own handwriting, which really gives you that tactile feel, like you’re reading from a private diary and sketchbook. It’s a remarkable ode to creativity and a personal journey to achieving one’s ambitions. If you love great memoirs and want to experience one that’s a bit unconventional but highly entertaining, this is the one for you.


Murdoch: The Political Cartoons of Sharon Murdoch
by Sharon Murdoch with Melinda Johnston
Potton & Burton

With New Zealand’s (former) Prime Minister John Key recently calling it quits, now is a great time to review some of the best political cartoons to feature Key and his National Government, produced by 2016 Canon Cartoonist of the Year, Sharon Murdoch. As the regular cartoonist for the Sunday Star Times and The Christchurch Press, she provokes and delights readers with her witty and often hilarious observations, and her hard-hitting and insightful social and political analysis. In Murdoch, Melinda Johnston’s commentary sets the cartoons within their historical context, while her introduction locates the work within New Zealand’s cartooning history. Featuring over 150 full-page cartoons, which highlight the breadth and depth of Sharon Murdoch’s work, this book will entertain and educate any reader with an interest in New Zealand’s contemporary social and political history.


Serbia

Selected by Žika Tamburić

Žika Tamburić is a long-time comics collector, historian and critic from Belgrade and London. He is also an editor of graphic novels published under Modesty Comics (e-books in English) and Modesty stripovi (paper books in Serbian).

The comics scene and publishing in Serbia continued its strong ride in 2016, with more than 10 festivals in the country, more than 15 publishers and more than 200 new books. This extensive trend is in contradiction to the small market and print runs of around 500 copies. It is uncertain how long this enthusiasm will continue, but in the meantime Serbian comic fans are enjoying a lot of events and great foreign and domestic titles. The following is a selection of the most interesting titles by domestic authors:


Ars Magna
by Alcante & Milan Jovanović
System Comics

This book comprises three continuous episodes in a popular alternative history genre, developed by a Serbian artist and a French scriptwriter, originally published in France in 2012-15. Jovanović is an accomplished artists who makes the story believable with his refined realistic drawings.


Dardaneli 2 / Linije Fronta 4 / Vekovnici 8 / YU Tarzan 6
(Dardanelle 2 / Front Lines 4 / Endless 8 / YU Tarzan 6) 
System Comics  Darkwood Comics

It is worth noting that Serbian publishers System Comics and Darkwood have continued to publish serials by domestic authors. At the present time, with the growing popularity of one-off graphic novels, keeping serials alive is very important in an attempt to keep the audience interested and connected to the characters. Dardanelle 2 is a masterly drawn and written adventure book about famous individuals from literature who are fighting each other. Front Lines 4 is an amalgamation of Serbian and French artists and writers who narrate stories from the First World War, not always from the front lines, but also from the back, where humanity was struggling for mere existence. Endless 8 is a mind-boggling saga of historical personalities and endless creatures (vampires, werewolves, dog-headers and others), produced through decades as a magnificent achievement by a single scriptwriter Marko Stojanović and numerous artists from the Balkans. YU Tarzan 6 collects the works produced in Serbia in the 80s and 90s under the Edgar Rice Boroughs’ licence.


Karton siti (‘Cardboard City’)
by Željko Obrenović and others
Modesty Comics

The book consist of seven stories by one scriptwriter, Željko Obrenović (Valjevo), and four artists: Željko Vitorović (Valjevo), Nemanja Radovanović (Valjevo / Novi Sad), Miroslav Slipčević (Sarajevo) and Gašper Rus (Ljubljana), basically putting the city of Valjevo on the comics map, but also showing that collaborations between talented people will always exist, regardless of political and national borders. The book is also published in English as an ebook Cardboard City on http://www.modestycomics.com.  As David Hine, writer and comics scriptwriter of Strange Embrace, Silent War, The Bulletproof Coffin, X-Men, Daredevil, writes in his introduction: “All of these stories are intimate and personal and yet they express universal truths about the nature of humankind. They are full of apparent coincidences, but I can state with some conviction that every instance of synchronicity is crafted with great purpose. I invite you, the reader, to explore the layers of meaning for yourself.”


Legenda o Isu (‘Legend About Iss’) 
by Laurence Istin & Dejan Nenadov
Komiko

A legendary artist from Serbia in the 80s, Dejan Nenadov (Elazar) returned to comics in 2008 for French publishers. Legend About Iss is a fantasy serial of three books (originally published in France in 2011-14) collected here into one book by a hardworking editor Vuk Marković from Komiko.

 

 



Nit umetnosti (‘The Art Thread’)
by Ivana Smuđa & Gradimir Smuđa
System Comics

The Art Thread is an extraordinary book of about 200 hand-painted pages from two French books, published originally in 2012-14 and here collected in one volume. It tells the story of a young girl (and a silly cat), starting from prehistoric cave-drawings and following the red thread from one famous painting to another. It looks like Alice’s wandering into the unknown, but it is a very educational book, as it provides biographies of famous artists (about 20 in total) through history and magnificent reproductions of their famous paintings by Smuđa. The book identifies each painter’s connections with previous artistic works and reveals anecdotes (real or just possible) about their own paintings. It shows that a production of a great artwork is a miracle, made possible by leaning on previous experiences, talent and some contemporary provocations. Gradimir Smuđa (1954) is on the top of his artistic abilities here, painting a masterpiece about painters.   

 

Singapore

Selected by Lim Cheng Tju

Lim Cheng Tju writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. He co-authored The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (Amsterdam University Press/NUS Press) and co-edited Liquid City Vol 2 (Image Comics), an anthology of Southeast Asian comics. He is the country editor (Singapore) for the International Journal of Comic Art and his articles have appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He writes comics sometimes too.


Drewscape Sketchbook: A Collection from 2013-2016
by Drewscape (Andrew Tan)
Self-published

Drewscape (Andrew Tan) is no stranger to the Singapore comic scene, having put out zines since the late 2000s and contributing to the Liquid City anthology. His 2012 collection of short stories, Monsters, Miracles and Mayonnaise, published by Epigram Books in Singapore, was nominated for an Eisner for Best Short Story. Since then, he has gone back to his roots of doing autobiographical stories about being a father and bringing up his child, Ollie. Drewscape Sketchbook: A Collection from 2013-2016 is his new zine after a hiatus of a few years, filled with sketches and charming short comic stories of everyday life.


Eva Goes Solo
by Evangeline Neo 
MPH Publishing

The gag cartoon is under-rated these days. Critics might find longer narratives to be more weighty and worthy of analysis, but the seemingly simple gag cartoon can still pack a punch ans when done well, it can be better than your ‘serious’ graphic novel. A case in point is Evangeline Neo’s second book of gag cartoons, Eva Goes Solo. Eva made a name for herself a few years ago when she released the bestselling Eva, Kopi and Matcha, which is a humorous look at the differences between Singapore and Japan. It was well received and it was an interesting study of the cultural distance and difference between the two societies, which admire each other. Such observations were based on Eva’s real-life experience as a postgraduate student in Japan. In Eva Goes Solo, she goes back to those eventful years and has produced a graphic memoir. Humour is still her choice of weapon to engage the readers, getting them to empathise with her whenever she gets into trouble. The story starts with Eva winning a scholarship to study in Japan, only to discover the land of manga and anime is not what it seems. Eva encounters bureaucracy, inefficiency and even the 3/11 earthquake. Especially memorable are her house-hunting episodes and her cat-and-mouse routines with persistent NHK officers who were trying to collect TV tax from her. There are also tender moments, like when Eva experienced her first homestay and summer hanabi (fireworks). It is a love-hate relationship (like any other relationships), but as Eva relates at the end of the book, Japan is a country she will always go back to.


S!lence
by Tanky
Big Egg Comics 

One of the more active comic creators working in Singapore today, Tanky’s new comic, S!lence is a SF / jungle manga story that will have you at the edge of your seat and still tug the heartstrings. It is a delightful silent comic, which reminds me of Hong Kong’s Lai Tat Tat Wing. The same kind of quirkiness and sense of discovery. Silent comics have been around for a long time. For us in Southeast Asia with our myriad of languages, a silent comic actually transcends boundaries and borders. It will be interesting to see how Tanky will continue to explore this genre. 

Posted: September 23, 2017

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