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Best Graphic Novels of 2015:

An International Perspective Part 1

Once a year, I get the privilege and pleasure of asking my international correspondents to review their pick of the best graphic novels and comics from their respective countries over the past year. I am always so grateful to them for sending me their considered choices and their commentaries about them. They never fail to surprise me with the sheer variety and quality of what is being created around the globe. A good many of these works will get little if any coverage in the English language, which makes this annual round-up all the more valuable and revelatory. To me, it’s a handy reminder not to simply sit back and soak up the loud hype and hyperbole about the so-called ‘hot’ creators and ‘cool’ books which we hear too much about, but to stay curious and open-minded and never stop exploring this truly international, transnational medium we love… 

AUSTRALIA - BELGIUM - BRAZIL - DENMARK - GERMANY
NEW ZEALAND - PORTUGAL- SERBIA - SINGAPORE - SOUTH KOREA


Australia

Selected by Philip Bentley
Philip Bentley is a writer and editor who produces Word Balloons, a journal on Australian comics. Over the years he has also written, edited, published and retailed them. His book A Life in Comics is a personal history of comics in Australia 1960-1990.


Art is a Lie
by Susan Butcher & Carol Wood
Fabliaux Press

Back in the 1990s Susan Butcher and Carol Wood had some presence on the Australian comic scene thanks to their self-published magazine Pox. Essentially a vehicle for satire, in its pages they sent up various comics, TV shows and cultural mores with a verve drawn from some great, primarily 1970s, exponents of the form, in particular American underground comics and the humour magazine National Lampoon. Butcher & Wood have clearly drunk deeply from this well, presumably to counteract the stultifying effects of both growing up first in England, then subsequently in Perth, Western Australia, described by Wood as the “dullest place on earth”. Hence it is not surprising that they moved to Victoria in the late 90s. Since their last Pox in 2005 they have scored a monthly one page strip in the US arts mag Artillery, each sending up a fine artist in the style of a cartoonist. The best of these have now been collected in this book, the first from renowned Australian creator Bruce Mutard’s Fabliaux Press.

So we have Bosch by Mad’s Don Martin, Roy Lichtenstein by Joe ‘Superman’ Schuster, a Rube Goldberg take on Jackson Pollack, and Marcel Duchamp interpreted by Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) among others. As well there are bios of famous cartoonists in their style such as Rick Griffin and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth. All of these are rendered in a meticulous aping of the respective style that is as impressive as it is amusing. Whilst I would describe this more as clever humour than roll on the floor type, the devil is still often in the detail, such as their send-ups of ads for various companies that advertised in 1960s comics, such as the Record Collector’s Club, novelty joke emporia, or their own back cover spruiking the book in a facsimile of the 100 toy soldier/cowboy ads. This work, then, in style and content seeks to riff on the quote from Picasso that gives the book it’s title. “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”


Belgium

Selected by Gert Meesters
Gert Meesters is associate professor of Dutch language and culture at the University of Lille, France. He is a co-founder of the comics research group Acme in Liège, Belgium and has recently co-edited essay collections about French publishing house L’Association and about independent comics publishing (bilingual English-French). Since 2001, he has been writing weekly comics reviews for the Flemish news magazine Knack

Of course, 2015 was the year of the European editions of Olivier Schrauwen’s Arsène Schrauwen, but I already wrote about that book when it was serialised, a couple of years ago. Let me therefore concentrate on three really new books.


Wij twee samen (The two of us together’)
by Ephameron
Oogachtend

For Ephameron (Eva Cardon), an important figure in the graphics scene in Belgium, Wij twee samen is a major step in her career, because it is the first longer story she has written herself. The impulse came from her father’s illness, primary progressive aphasia, a kind of dementia that affects speech. Ephameron documented the debilitating effects of the illness and found a special way of translating the process into a book. She made line drawings and subsequently cut them into collages. Scenes include a weekly trip to her father by train and her father walking or later in the book, lying down. The attention of the drawings shifts from the people to the scenery and the interiors. A ceiling seems more interesting to her father than the people around him. Sometimes surreal elements appear, like a chair that is hanging in the air upside down. This way, the father’s hallucinations claim their own space in the book. There are three succinct and distinct layers of text. These are laid out on entire white pages, each in their own font. Ephameron’s own comments are delivered in a coherent, suggestive voice-over, commenting on the long illness, leading to the inevitable goodbye. Blue hand lettering is used for the last notes her father wrote down. These make the gradual loss of words painstakingly clear. A third font is used for the last words and sounds her father uttered. ‘Wij twee samen’ were the last understandable words he spoke and became a fitting title for a book that deals less with the illness itself than with the gradual loss of a cherished person. Ephameron not only built a shrine for her dying father (he died within weeks after the publication of the book) but also gave a tangible artistic form to a mourning process that lasted for several years. Loss of language becomes a metaphor for loss of contact between a human being that is still physically present and the people around him. Just like in her earlier books, Ephameron succeeds in finding the right tone, a mixture of controlled emotionality and intimacy.


Abba zoekt Frida (‘Abba looking for Frida’)
by Maarten Vande Wiele
Oogachtend

The legendary pop quartet ABBA, with their extravagant outfits and seemingly upbeat songs, is a dream come true of a theme for Maarten Vande Wiele, who has often focused on glamour and on drama in his previous translated books Paris and Monsieur Bermutier. In addition to the music, the private lives of the band members are due to inspire an author who likes contrasting appearances and reality. To his credit, Vande Wiele has not drawn a biography of the band, but has translated ABBA to a smaller Belgian scale. Four young musicians in Ghent form an ABBA tribute band, called the Honey Honeys. Their start is anything but glamorous, but slowly they become more and more successful. In the meantime, their private lives start resembling those of the ABBA band members: two couples emerge, but their relationships become more and more problematic. Of course, it all ends with a split. The ABBA songs are a silent soundtrack to the story. To avoid copyright problems, Vande Wiele has translated all songs into Dutch, thereby respecting the melodies. The songs were chosen to go with the story, so reading with YoutTube or a streaming service available is a good idea. The songs ‘I’m a Marionette’ and ‘Kisses of Fire’ are of course less well known than ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Super Trouper’. Vande Wiele’s choice is a nice display of the hidden sadness in a lot of ABBA songs. In the background, Vande Wiele’s city of Ghent is clearly recognisable, but just like the rest of the book, the city is covered in fluorescent colours: orange, fuchsia, light blue and yellow. The biggest wonder of it all is that the colours match. There is an artistic equilibrium in Vande Wiele’s vision of ABBA. See some images from the book in this review…


Mijn begrafenis (‘My funeral’)
by Maarten De Saeger
Bries

Mijn begrafenis is the official debut of thirty-something Maarten De Saeger. The title tells it all: in a voice-over, a young dead man comments on his own funeral. Flashbacks show the reader how the man ended up dead. Appearances are deceiving, though. The main character Arnon is always exaggerating his own merits, and downplaying the role of other people. His autobiography lists dozens of simultaneous girlfriends, who all started to bore him. His stolen success as a writer makes him even more unsympathetic. Later in the book, an ex-girlfriend and a good friend of Arnon’s give a totally different view of Arnon’s life. The play with truth and lies lends a tragicomic charm to the book. Graphically, De Saeger has developed his style based on the loose lines of Joann Sfar and Manu Larcenet, but the influences have been well processed. As a first book, Mijn begrafenis is powerful and coherent.

Brazil

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.


A Salamanca do Jarau
by Henrique Kipper
Editora Estronho

João Simões Lopes Neto (1865-1915) is one of the foremost authors in classic Brazilian prose. His gaucho short stories, generally acclaimed as masterpieces, not only profit from his deep knowledge of local (Southern) custom and tradition, but also from his ability to link local folklore with universal themes. His unlikely universe sports something that’s very hard to find in Brazilian literature: a fondness for the weird tale. No wonder it took a while for the canon to recognise his work, but nowadays Simões Lopes Neto’s stories have found much wider acceptance. His stories are set in traditional environments, always portrayed with intimacy and care, during exceptional, sometimes supernatural circumstances, which must have made the well-bred and well-groomed literary establishment gasp in horror.
For this to work in comics form, the artist had to share at least some of the author’s cultural references or have remarkable research abilities. Quite fortunately, Henrique Kipper (1970—) , the creator of this beautiful graphic novel, not only has those in spades, but comes from a childhood spent in the very region the short story writer talks about. Kipper, a versatile and quite well-read artist, on the other hand, has quite a cosmopolitan experience with comics, and it shows. He wisely chose to work from a single short story, one which links curious Spanish roots to local legends, thus providing ample room for the artist to craft a truly luminous Brazilian fantasy, even if unlikely, since Spanish presence is only felt in our country’s Southern frontier, colonised, as the region was, by the Portuguese.
The book is a full-colour 84-page graphic novel which provides precious insight into a tremendous writer’s universe, using it as a springboard for some very enthusiastic storytelling. It benefits from Kipper’s versatile experience, which includes superhero and horror comics, newspaper illustration, and a good number of different styles, as suits the occasion. Thus, the artist/writer manages to place his chosen tale in a much wider frame of visual references than what the writer must have thought possible back then. The results are briliant, and this reader believes Simões Lopes Neto would have been happy to see the beautiful book Kipper pulled out from his treasure chest of short stories.


Burroughs
by João Pinheiro
Veneta

João Pinheiro’s second graphic novel (the first was called Kerouac), printed in impressive blue and white, is a welcome surprise, tackling a difficult theme in such an unexpected and creative way. His narrative solutions rhyme very well with the subject matter, namely, poet William Burroughs’ work and life experiences, stretching into quite ugly and difficult philosophic territory , with full success, because it never forgets the pain involved in certain journeys of self-discovery. The book presents and discusses the events its author believes made Burroughs the writer he became,  but it’s not a truly biographic approach. It’s more like a visual expression of the impact of this tremendous writer’s work, themes and trajectory. These got very mixed up, as his readers know , and Pinheiro’s book explores the paths through which this may have happened. The poet, after all, believed language is a virus, and this 110 page long graphic novel takes this notion, and all implicit challenges, particularly potentially political ones, very seriously.

The book’s visual style departs from realism while remaining very well grounded in a classic comic book version of it . At first it ironically reads like a Fifties’ style crime comic, only gone dangerously haywire and full of pages told from inside the (deranged?) character’s mind. Then it grows into an articulate literary discussion, very carefully crafted in visual elements, of how the writer’s harrowing personal experiences shaped his methods. Since Burroughs used a lot of collage, this is quite interesting from a narrative standpoint. The artist is able to use his remarkable anatomical understanding and portrait abilities in the service of a story which questions the capability of any portraiture to truly grasp its subject.  What you believe about your life does not mean you truly know it, however much pain may be involved in such a realisation. Subjects of this kind are a challenge to any artist in any media, and Pinheiro is up to the task he set himself. We can happily say that this is quite a daring and successful experiment, one which shows philosophy, literature and comics and self-knowledge can go hand in hand very well. Watch a promo video for the book here…


PocketsComix
by Renato Lima
Webcomic

For a while now, artist-cum-DJ Renato Lima has been experimenting with tiny sizes and reaping rich rewards from his resilience. He was one of the editors involved in Mosh, a real tiny rock’n’roll comic book which defied the dearth of publishing spaces in the 90s, and some old time readers still complain about its disappearance and miss its iconoclastic humour. Renato, however, in time, has discovered and established his true theme: young adult life, most ostensibly that of women, but with such a mature tone, and a complicity with his themes, that it appeals to reasonable people in general. And it has steadily amplified its audience since day one, daily acquiring new readers who sometimes don’t even realise they’re reading a comics series, because it’s not about characters, but moods most people find themselves in, at one time or another. Renato, like other Brazilian contemporary cartoonists, has discovered a number of ways in which to put very little room to very good use, without necessarily cracking jokes, but sharing thoughts. The way he does it makes all the difference… The cartoonist does not deny he is somebody talking about the subjects he cares about, but he doesn’t yell from his soapbox. He manages to discuss modern life through constant visual comment, and is one of the very few authors today bringing new female readers to comics. The fact that very many times he’s talking from a feminine viewpoint may have a hand in this. The series’  visual style matches that of the writing, which is only apparently simple, but always concise and to the point. These little gems are getting a long overdue printed collection this year. It seems like 2016 will see many more pockets comics!


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.


Hr. Gris (‘Mr. Pig’)
by Peter Kielland
Aben Maler

With Hr. Gris, Peter Kielland, one of the most distinctive voices in Nordic comics, signs his most complex and difficult work, but also one of his funniest. Hr. Gris is a doomed everyman of the kind that Kielland invariably places at the centre of his modern fairly tales. The protagonist is split between a world of grim fantasy ruled by a one-eyed demiurge, and a slow, quotidian death in the gutters of a big city and in its manicured suburban plots. Hellfire separates these planes of existence, but they are inextricably intertwined, revealed to each other in comics pages that he comes across. The book is essentially a series of loosely, but ominously connected short stories that unite to form an ambitious and exhilarating, but at times also frustratingly impenetrable metaphysics of life, full of dark humour and exquisitely timed sequences of absurd slapstick. A personal vision expertly fashioned in the frivolous language of the comics of old.
 
 
Kakerlak (‘Cockroach’) 
by Halfdan Pisket
Fahrenheit

The second part of Pisket’s brutally poetic retelling of his Armenian/Turkish immigrant father’s life concentrates on his arrival and early life in Denmark as an immigrant haunted by a violent past, not least the torture he was subjected to as a deserter from the Turkish army. It is a life on the edge that poisons every relationship he enters into, particularly when it comes to the women with whom he has children. Epileptic seizures are medicated with marijuana, while his fears and anxieties are marinated in alcohol; a life of sordid and increasingly desperate crime awaits. Kakerlak is a powerful account of the immigrant experience, of its psychology and pathology, charted in a suggestively oneiric chiaroscuro by a rapidly-developing artist.

 
I morgen bliver bedre 1: Kongen (‘Tomorrow will be better’ vol. 1: ‘The King’)
by Karoline Stjernfelt
Cobolt

This piece of historical fiction mines the same powerfully romantic material as Nikolaj Arcel’s Academy Award-nominated 2012 banality A Royal Affair, but takes a more down-to-earth approach to the story of the mad Danish king Christian VII, his English bride Caroline Mathilde, and her lover, physician to the king and would-be political player, Johan Friedrich Struensee. In this, the first volume of a planned trilogy, the focus is on the young queen and her efforts to maintain a meaningful life in what is only a marriage by name, and on the young, intelligent, but also unstable and dangerously fragile king, who sees his efforts at happiness frustrated by the duties of his office and the machinations of the politicians who actually run the country. Struensee is introduced, but how his brief and scandalous rise to the top will be handled is a matter for the next volumes. Clocking in at over 150 pages and rendered in what might be described as a youthful, slightly shojo-inflected interpolation of the illustrative classicism of French veteran André Juillard, this is an astoundingly assured debut by the 22-year old author.
 


Germany

Selected by Christian Gasser
Christian Gasser is a swiss fiction-writer, journalist and lecturer at the Lucerne University of Art & Design. He reviews comics for various newspapers, magazines and radio-networks in Switzerland and Germany. He is the co-editor of the comics-magazine STRAPAZIN, the co-curator of the Graphic Novel Days in Hamburg and a member of the “Max und Moritz Preis”-Jury of the Erlangen Comic-Festival. His latest books: animation.ch. Vision and Versatility in Swiss Animated Film (2011, as an enhanced e-Book in 2016), Comix Deluxe (2012), Rakkaus! (finnisch: Liebe) (novel, 2014).

If 2014 was the year of heavy graphic novels on historical topics (see last year’s entries), 2015 belonged to the short form. Since important dailies such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau or Berliner Tagesspiegel have begun commissioning exclusive strips or Sunday pages from German artists, the comic strip has experienced a creative renaissance. Two major Sunday strips for the Berliner Tagesspiegel have now been collected for the first time in these gorgeous books, Flix’s Schöne Töchter and Mawil’s Singles Collection.


Schöne Töchter (‘Beautiful Daughters’
by Flix
Carlsen Verlag

From the first sensations one has when falling in love to the indifferent drifting apart or the bitter ending: In Schöne Töchter, Flix depicts love and relation-ships in all their phases and variations. He talks about longing and desires, about daily routines and wild fantasies, about embarrassing situations and disappointments, about sex and loneliness. His short stories are melancholic, funny and at the same time astonishingly complex – they usually express much more than you’d expect after a first reading. Beyond that, Schöne Töchter is a declaration of love to comics. In every one of his square, 12x12 inch strips, Flix surprises his readers with a new and unique page-layout. He is obviously a fan of the masters of newspaper comics from Winsor McCay to Bill Watterson, but definitely has developed his own voice and style. Flix is a contemporary comic-strip-master in his own right, and Schöne Töchter is simply a pure delight.



The Singles Collection
by Mawil
Reprodukt Verlag

Mawil’s The Singles Collection is no less pleasurable. After stunning us, a year before, with Kinderland, his 400-page thick recollection of the last weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, Mawil proves that he is just as gifted at the short form. The Singles Collection is about Mawil living and working in Berlin, the small and big daily comedies and tragedies in a cartoonist’s existence. He deals more or less successfully with girls, hipsters, friends and foes, editors, estate agents or bicycle-dealers; he reflects about comics, comics-making and comics-festivals, and from time to time he enjoys giving his readers bizarre advice to optimise their lives. Mawil is always at the centre of his strip, sometimes as his alter ego, a cute, white, long-eared rabbit, sometimes as himself, a nerdy charmeur. Mawil’s power of observation pairs with the wonderful liveliness of both his drawings and texts. His pages seem to be drawn quickly and spontaneously, Mawil plays with styles, techniques and materials, he experiments a lot, takes risks, and reinvents himself constantly. Thus, Mawil reflects the fragmentation of the urban everyday life as well as the formal richness of comics. The Singles Collection is hilarious, touching, often surprising, and wildly entertaining. It’s the breathless chronicle of the life of his generation in a city like Berlin.


New Zealand

Selected by Adrian Kinnaird
Adrian Kinnaird has been involved in the New Zealand comics community as a cartoonist, writer and blogger for the past 16 years. 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 here…


The Heading Dog Who Split in Half: Legends and Tall Tales from New Zealand
by Michael Brown & Mat Tait
Potton & Burton

When it comes to tall tales you want to be drawn in and convinced that there’s a germ of truth in the telling - no matter how outrageous the yarn, and that’s exactly what Brown and Tait have achieved with this gorgeous over-sized collection of New Zealand legends and folk tales. Illustrated in Tait’s trademark mix of razor-sharp line-work and fluid inking (a must for any fan of Charles Burns) these stories will entertain, unnerve and haunt you – in the best possible way. These tales include a gothic tragedy in the form of The Legend of Tunnel Beach, a lively sea shanty - Ranzo, Boys, Ranzo!, the ghost story of The Phantom Canoe, and riotous small town reminiscing like The Day the Pub Burnt Down. Retold with a expert eye to balance both the inherent humour and pathos of these stories, Brown and Tait have uncovered a previously untapped layer of New Zealand’s cultural history - that is perfectly suited to the graphic novel format. Rounded out with a detailed notes section on the varied sources for these legends, this collection is an essential New Zealand graphic novel - that deserves a spot on every local bookshelf, where it will haunt and entertain readers of all ages for years to come.



High Water 
by Dylan Horrocks, Sarah Laing, Toby Morris, Katie O’Neil, Chris Slane, Cory Mathis, Christian Pearce, Damon Keen, Ned Wenlock, Jonathan King, Ross Murray. Edited by Damon Keen
Bad Monkeys

This hardback anthology challenged eleven of NZ’s best cartoonists to create stories themed around climate change. Rather than browbeating readers with facts and figures (or obvious disaster tropes), the result is a series of thoughtful pieces, each taking a different approach to the subject. Sarah Laing’s After the Floods embraces a YA adventure approach to the dystopian aftermath, while Keen’s The Lotus Eaters offers an ominous time lapse of Auckland’s present and future. Katie O’Neil and Dylan Horrocks’ stories both explore personal relationships, while Chris Slane and Ned Wenlock offer a humourous angle to proceedings. Wisely avoiding the opportunity to inform, this anthology’s focus is simply on entertaining, and through engaging an audience - hopefully sparking more conversation on the topic of climate change.


Changing Times
by Bob Kerr
Potton & Burton

Bob Kerr returned to graphic storytelling this year with Changing Times, a cleverly crafted history of New Zealand told through the evolution of a print media. The McPherson family immigrate to New Zealand in 1840 and begin publishing The New Zealand Times, which, starting with the Treaty of Waitangi, reports on the local and national stories which shape the country’s history. We also follow the generations of the McPherson family who continue to run the paper until it is purchased by a multi-national news corporation and closed down, at which point our narrator, a teenaged Matt McPherson, creates a news blog to continue the family tradition. All this information should be challenging to get across, but Kerr’s ability to distill down a subject to an easy to follow series of images speaks to his skill and experience. This is a great publication for younger readers to engage with and learn more about local history and the evolving role of print media over time.


Terry Teo and the Gunrunners
by Bob Kerr & Stephen Ballantyne
Earth’s End Publishing

This year also saw the release of a new edition of Terry Teo and the Gunrunners, Bob Kerr’s first comics effort with writer Stephen Ballantyne. Originally published in 1982, it was one of the first graphic novels to be published in New Zealand. Taking inspiration from their love of Hergé‘s Tintin, the story followed a skateboarding teenager Terry Teo, who runs afoul of a gun smuggling operation and has to use all his cunning and street-smarts to outwit the criminals and save the day. The graphic novel proved popular, and inspired much loved 1980s TV series, which is currently being remade for a modern audience and set to screen locally this year.


White Trash
by Gordon Rennie & Martin Emond
Titan Books

In the early 90’s, local cartoonist Martin Emond made a splash in the international world of comics with his first major project, a fully painted graphic novel, White Trash. Written by Gordon Rennie, the story follows two hard-traveling heroes: ‘The King’ (an Elvis analogue) and Dean - a teen slacker with more than a passing resemblance to the lead-singer of Emond’s favourite band Guns ‘N Roses - on a hellish road-trip across Southwest America. In a life and career that was far too brief, White Trash has stood the test of time as one of Emond’s best and most influential works; so it’s great to finally see this revered work get the re-mastered, hardcover treatment it deserves from UK publisher Titan Books.


Portugal

Selected by Pedro Moura
Pedro Moura is a Portuguese PhD student researching trauma and comics. He writes mainly for his own blog but has published several articles and worked as a teacher, curator, translator, and conference director in comics.

For someone who always like to say they don’t like to make “Best of” lists, there is some degree of pleasure in the participation on this yearly project. The Portuguese so-called market may not be muscled enough to guarantee (yet?) international circulation or significant numbers, but at least we may be assured that certain editorial forces are consolidated sufficiently (in financial matters, distribution strategies and even catalogue-wise) to guarantee that there will always be room for diversity, new authors and continuous books from established authors.


O poema morre (‘The Poem Dies’)
by David Soares & Sónia Oliveira
Kingpin Books

I mentioned David Soares last year, and he returns again with O poema morre, a poetical reflection upon war and its place within human nature through the story of a poet, once hailed as the State’s voice but quickly fallen. Bleak, ambiguous and amoral, the narrative could not find a better vehicle than in the fantastical, reedy figures drawn up by Sónia Oliveira, painted in eerie, diaphanous watercolours. In fact, one could describe these characters as brittle twig-like figures amidst a storm of ashes and dusk, barely surviving in a Limbo to which we have access to through the faintest of dreams.
Read the writer’s blog post on the book here…


The Care of Birds
by Francisco Sousa Lobo
Chili Com Carne

We also revisit once again Francisco Sousa Lobo, with The Care of Birds ( in English originally), although this was a very particular productive year for the artist. His shorter work The Francisco Problem, in Portuguese and Spanish only, is also a major achievement, wholly and painfully autobiographical. Despite its 100-plus pages, The Care of Birds is a tale mostly made of silences and doubts, both of the protagonist and the reader. Peter Hickey is an older man, an accomplished birdwatcher, birdsong imitator and bird draughtsman. But he is assaulted by strange feelings of seemingly innocent friendship toward children, which might be interpreted by many as pedophilia. A profound Catholic, Hickey is at the same time well aware of an uncrossable line but also haunted by sinning, that may or may not have taken place. All the questions that arise from the little plot there exists, if answered, are ambiguous. Difficult, profound, agonising, slow-paced but not tranquil, bereft of adornment and effects, The Care of Birds is a tour de force between Dostoevskyan drama and Kafkesque inaction, making it not only a great book within the Portuguese context but internationally as well. Read an extract here…


Volta , O segredo do vale das sombras  (“Turn, The secret of the valley of shadows’)
André Oliveira & André Caetano
Polvo

André Oliveira is undoubtedly the most prolific comics writer at this moment in Portugal, and 2015 was an especially productive year for him, having had at least five book-length projects published: among them, an introspective novel sans words, an book-length action title with several illustrators, a biography of a Portuguese mass murderer from the early 19th century and the new chapters of a longer work about an old man trying to redeem past sins. But I’d like to highlight Volta , O segredo do vale das sombras   with André Caetano. Not only it has won a few local awards, but, to a certain extent, it sums up Oliveira’s output with its neat narrative construction, bringing together lighthearted fantasy with heavier themes beneath the surface. André Caetano’s linework, at once loose and concrete, with an intelligent use of crosshatching to bring about texture and density, and ominous shadows, whenever needed, gives it the mixture of gravitas and levity Volta demands. Despite being a self-contained story, it is also part of a wider project that may expand on the world-building associated with the title. Read the writer’s blog post on the book…


QCDI 3000
by Círculo do Inferno
Chili Com Carne

QCDI 3000 is actually the third volume of an ongoing project to highlight new, young comics artists who are willing to push the envelope of the art of comics-making. This particular issue is concentrated on a collective called Círculo do Inferno, a little like the Hellfire Club, and they’re no gentlemen either. The authors are Astromanta, Hetamoé, Mao and André Pereira (who I mentioned last year). This oversized, tabloid-like anthology presents four-page pieces by each artist, not necessarily narrative: Astromanta presents a sort of science fiction essay on precariousness; Hetamoé crunches shojo manga with post-Marxist politics via high fantasy tropes; André Pereira creates a seemingly light story that actually focuses on the current political-economic crises of Portuguese society (with absolutely brilliant page compositions); and Mao brings together two distinct narrative tracks, an unclear palace intrigue and the slow progress of an oozing pizza-monster (but also an exercise in experimental composition). Weird, creative, dynamic, indeterminate in their moral but surefire in their humour and politics, this collective has not only produced top-notch contemporary comics that go well beyond classic genres and forms, but also provide much food for thought, and not only about comics themselves.


Erzsebét
by Nunsky
Chili Com Carne

Apart from authors that have been working continually, or newcomers conquering their own turf, I’d like to mention a book by someone who made a sort of comeback in early 2015. The author known as Nunsky is somewhat of a solitudinarian, staying apart from the most visible local “comics scene”, and while he works professionally with drawing, he seldom publishes comics. After projects in the late 1990s, this is his first longer form book. Erzsebét (with English subtitles) is the biography of the infamous early 17th century Hungarian princess mass-murderer, Elizabeth Báthory, a.k.a. “The Blood Countess”. The author weaves history and fantasy into a dense portrait of the character and her deeds, creating thus a classic take on the genre of horror comics. Adapting his stark, thick lines – akin to wood-engraving, to an extent - to sober composition work and a contained palette, close to artists such as Michael Kupperman or Igor Haufbauer, the book is less dynamic and fast-paced than hieratic, taut and austere. A complete biography that focuses on the emergence of Elizabeth’s very “dark side”, one could argue that Erzsebét is also a study about evil and salvation, class divides and how madness is often the key to escape desperation. Check out a preview here…


Serbia

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

The comic scene and publishing in Serbia were again strong in 2015. There are more than 10 comic festivals in the country, more than 30 artists are working for foreign publishers, and domestic publishers collectively published more than 200 new books and books with reprints from the history of comics. 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 the 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.


Tarzan: Reke krvi (‘Tarzan: The Rivers of Blood’) 
by Neven Antičević & Igor Kordej
System Comics

It has to be noted that System Comics was the most prominent publisher of domestic comics in 2015, including books such as Otadžbina (‘Fatherland’, Nina Bunjevac), Vekovnici #7 (‘Endless’ #7, various authors), Linije fronta #2 and #3 (‘Front Lines’ #2 and #3, various authors), Birokratija (‘Bureaucracy’, Aleksa Gajić), Projekat Venus #2 (‘Project Venus’ #2, Branko Tarabić), Nit umetnosti (‘The Tread of Art’, Ivana and Gradimir Smudja, originally published in French) and Tarzan - Reke krvi (‘Tarzan - The Rivers of Blood’, Neven Antičević & Igor Kordej). Although this last book is not absolutely “domestic” as it consists of work by authors from Croatia, created at the time when Serbia and Croatia were part of Yugoslavia, it deserves our attention for many reasons. Not just because of the fact that “art doesn’t care about borders”, as two Serbian publishers have published the book by Croatian authors which has not yet been published in Croatia. 
As this book is different in several aspects from any other comic book recently, it can arguably be awarded as the most interesting comics project of the year. First of all, it demonstrates that that established conventions of Tarzan can be reassessed and updated again and again. This original story of Tarzan was developed by Antičević and Kordej in the 1980s as an unusual graphic novel. It gives Tarzan a makeover in Kordej’s artistic style and a story in which Tarzan comes to Europe before World War I and meets Sigmund Freud and Karl Gustav Jung in other to solve his psychological problems.
This surprising story of Tarzan, which still doesn’t lack dynamism and adventure, had caught the attention of some publishers, but none of them managed to publish all the episodes for various reasons.  For example, Dark Horse published the first 4 episodes (22 pages each) but never finished it and Kordej stopped drawing the comic and was dragged away with his many other projects. Two enthusiastic publishers from Serbia decided to publish this story in its entirety. Kordej didn’t have time to finish his art and the book incorporates almost 400 pages of Kordej’s works on Tarzan including The Rivers of Blood. the first 4 episodes in full colour, followed by next two episodes in black-and-white and last two episodes in sketches. All in all, the book is an impressive achievement in size (bigger than A4), quality of art and script and as a compilation of the most unusual stories of Tarzan that we will ever come across.


Atentat (Atentat) 
by Guido van Hengel & Boris Stanić
Besna kobila

This book covers the lives of unfortunate young people, and of Gavrilo Princip in particular, who, motivated by their best intentions for the people of their countries, assassinated Prince Ferdinand and his wife Sophia from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in Sarajevo in 1914 and triggered World War I. The story describes with flashbacks their youth, the assassination itself and in fine detail their lives during the court trial and later in prison. None of them lasted more than a couple of years under the torture and bad conditions that they were exposed in prisons, if they were not sent straight to execution. The script is provided by an historian from the Netherlands and the art by the painter from Serbia. The art by Stanić is more like inspirational individual paintings in black and white positioned close to each other than a classic comic narrative. However, this approach provides impressive images and the tragedy of the story becomes even more emphasised. 


Stripske majstorije Ive Kušanića (‘The Comics Mastercraft by Ivo Kušanić’)
edited by Zdravko Zupan
Modesty stripovi

The book comprises14 stories by Ivo Kušanić, from 1939 to 1986, an illustrator, cartoonist, painter and comic artist from Yugoslavia. His contemporary humour and benevolent stories with subtle character development brought many great moments in the lives of his long-time readers. The book was produced after painstaking cleaning of scanned pages from newspapers and magazines, sometimes removing bad colouring, to reach the original drawings. It also contains an informative foreword by comic historian and editor of the book Zdravko Zupan (1950-2015) and insightful foreword by writer and comic critic Vasa Pavković.


Priče iz Jugooslavije (‘Stories from Yugoslavia’)
by Predrag Djurić & Sabahudin Muranović
Rosencrantz

Predrag Djurić has devoted his talent for storytelling to books and comics and produced and published several comic books with domestic and foreign artists in recent years. Just in 2015 he published three books with domestic artists (Pavel Koza, Jelena Vučić and Sabahudin Muranović). Stories from Yugoslavia describes a young Frenchmen with Serbian origin who discovers the history of his family by visiting Serbia and reading a letter from his grandfather. Djurić covers the years of turbulent history of Yugoslavia with great knowledge and depth and Muranović’s realistic and assured drawings contribute to a compelling story.


Singapore

Selected by Lim Cheng Tju
Lim Cheng Tju is the country editor (Singapore) for the International Journal of Comic Art. He is also the co-editor of Liquid City Vol 2 (Image Comics, 2010), an anthology of Southeast Asian comics, and the co-author of The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (Amsterdam University Press, 2012).


The Art of Charlie Chan Chye Hock
by Sonny Liew
Epigram Books

The man of the hour and possibly the book of the year, and not just the graphic novel of the year, from Singapore. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is as meta and playful as they come à la Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. A fake history of comics in Singapore told from the point of view of the fictional Charlie Chan, the greatest comic artist we never had. But sometimes the truth of a nation’s past is revealed through lies - the book is a critique of how Singapore gained its independence. The state’s critical response to the book has led to its infamy, shooting it up to the bestsellers’ list. The negative consequences for government funding of graphic novels in Singapore as a result of this will not affect Liew much, as he works mainly for comic companies in America. When this book is released by Pantheon in America in March, it will solidify his critical standing in the West.
 Read the writer’s full review here…


The Resident Tourist Vol 7
by Troy Chin
Math Paper Press

With this 7th volume more than a year in the making, Troy Chin, one of the pioneers of autobiographical comics in Singapore, continues to chronicle his life in public, something he has been doing for the past eight years since his return from NYC. He did well in school, went to U. Penn to do business studies (the same school Donald Trump graduated from), landed up in a dream job with a major record label. But he got depressed, started seeing a psychiatrist who advised him to draw. He returned to Singapore and started The Resident Tourist. Troy is still unsure of himself, despite winning the top government award for young artists and meeting the President, and representing Singapore with other artists at the Angoulême Comic Festival in France. Life is still dreary and Troy can be whiny at times, but he is getting more aggressive as his life progresses in this volume. There are more tales of his army days (all males are conscripted to do national service for two years), red light districts and Caucasian men who chased Asian women in Singapore.



Match Point
By Adrian Teo & Ken Foo
Self-published

The political culture of Singapore is such that we find it hard to laugh at ourselves, much less make fun of our political leaders which is a no-no since independence. Political cartoonists would satirise other countries’ leaders but not our own. That is why the ‘I don’t give a flying fuck’ attitude of Adrian Teo and Ken Foo is refreshing in this stifling environment. They will make fun of any social situations, from the dating scene (Date King) to the competitive school sports environment in Match Point. This new book by the politically incorrect duo is a mix of high-school romance, sports comic and shojo manga. Think Slam Dunk but it’s female tennis players in super short skirts. It’s filled with stereotypes, sick jokes and social satire that we have not seen in Singapore for a long time.


Mochikomi
by FSC (online)

It is telling of the sad state of affairs in Singapore comics when two of our best female comic artists are putting out their work online and self-publishing. Foo Swee Chin (or FSC as she is better known) is a pioneer in Singapore comics - she was the first Singapore comic artist to be published in America, even before Sonny Liew. She is more known overseas (especially in Japan) than in Singapore. Her gothic driven tales are not easily found in her own country, but now they are available on her website. One of her best stories and the most heartbreaking is her autobiographical strip of her trying to break into the Japanese manga market. Her first experience of Mochikomi (knocking on the doors of different manga publishers and showing the editors your work for review and comments) is both hilarious and harrowing at the same time - read it online here…


The Feather Pillow
by Xiao Yan
Unipolar Press

Newcomer Xiao Yan is a talent to watch out for. She self-publishes her books and the most intriguing is her adaptation of Horacio Quiroga’s short story, The Feather Pillow. A cult classic, this unassuming gothic tale has just the right amount of chills when rendered by Xiao Yan. Honourable mention: other than the pros above, we have a growing pool of part-time comic artists who are telling good stories at the annual 24 Hour Comics Day, an event I started with some friends back in 2010 - see this example by Don Low…


South Korea

Selected by Kim Nakho
Nakho Kim is a Korean comics researcher. He writes reviews and columns for book journals and other periodicals, has worked as the editor-in-chief for the comics critic webzine Dugoboza, and curated the special exhibition on manhwa or Korean comics at the Angoulême Festival in 2003.


고고고! 해골물의 비밀 (‘GoGoGo! the Secret of Skullwater’)
by Ha Ilkwon
Serialised by Naver webtoon
Published by Hyungseul

Go Min is a little boy who is clever yet dirt poor, due to his game-addict father and senile ex-archeologist grandfather he has to take care of. One day, shadowy figures burn down his house in search for the map to the mystical skull once owned by Wonhyo the great monk, which shall grant profound brilliance to whomever drinks from it. What follows is a happy fast-paced mixture of Indiana Jones, Goonies and 80s style humour manhwa, topped off with anachronic jokes and heartfelt family reconciliations. Moreover, this work makes extensive use of scroll-based special effects that actually contribute to a better reading experience; parallax effects in establishing shots to create depth, triggered motions for sudden action, pixelation for video game references, and so on. Besides being the prime adventure manhwa of recent years, it is also a pioneer in which direction the webtoon format can evolve.


Ho! (‘Ho!’)
by Uksoo
Serialised by Naver webtoon / Published by Gobooki

Loosely adapted from a discussion board post on 2ch, Ho! tells the story of the  young adult Won who becomes a tutor for the deaf girl Ho and how after many years they eventually become lovers. Won would be considered ‘pathetic’ in that he does not push others around, though he is not well-off (a rare trait in Korea), but on the other hand it is a virtue that makes him listen to others. The story focuses on the communication process between them, while facing the severe social prejudice against the disabled. At the same time, it is a coming-of-age story in the harsh realities of competing for a decent job. Subtle and complex characters expressed with intricate details make this work a must-read romantic comedy. Sample some pages here…


DP: 개의 날 (‘DP: day of the dog’)
by Kim Botong
Serialized by Lezhin Comics, Hankorye (syndicated) / Published by Cinebooks

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton once said. As such, in an unfettered hierarchical power structure, abuse becomes the default. But when a major chunk of the population go through the experience of being abused and than becoming the abuser later on, people forget that these problems are actually problems. This is the reality of the draft-based Korean military, where many young people actually go AWOL, run amok or commit suicide due to abusive practices within the troops. DP: Day of the dog tells the story of Corporal Ahn, an MP soldier specialising in tracking down and arresting deserters. In each story arc, he witnesses different kinds of abuses of power that led the deserter to take extreme measures, while also dealing with the abuses ongoing in his own unit. Expressed with subdued visual style and dry dialogues, this work succeeds in telling those stories while maintaining an objective distance from the characters involved. It is a fascinating account of how people can exploit others if granted the power to do so, and how we could have prevented all of it if we actually care to see others as equal human beings. Take a look inside here…


Star Wars: Before the Force Awakens
by Hongjacga
Serialized by Daum (Korean) & (English)

Honorable mention (for not being an ‘original story’): this is the original trilogy of Star Wars retold from the view of Luke Skywalker, which blends familiar designs with both graphic novel- and manga-influenced drawing, while applying ample scroll-based webtoon styles. Intricate visual details, excellent storytelling and the addition of officially approved backstories make this boundary-crossing work one of the best canon Star Wars adaptations so far.

Posted: February 8, 2016

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