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PG Tips No. 17:

The Best Of 2007

Phew! How was it for you? To my mind, this has been yet another bumper year for graphic novels, but not all the pundits and bloggers compiling their ‘Best Of’ lists agree. I was amazed that one American critic headlined his report, "In year of comics mediocrity, a shining dozen," topping his twelve finest pamphlets with Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s solid, headline-making Captain America. Far from a year of "mediocrity", those of us with our American mainstream blinkers off, my friend, can see the unprecedented wealth of comics creativity we are now living through.

Looking at these hit parades, they almost inevitably contain lots of the same big names and big books placing high. In all this process of whittling down to the absolute greatest crème-de-la-crème works of staggering genius, however, a certain consensus prevails and so some very wonderful gems, sometimes lesser known titles, less hyped maybe, and, would you believe it, some not published in America or Britain, and maybe not even in English, usually get sidelined or overlooked.

Before we rush headlong into 2008’s prodigious panelogical plethora, I thought I’d look back over this year and share some of my reflections on my ‘shining dozen’ or so, written partly for Plan B and The Comics Journal. I will follow these with some commentaries on some more of My Other Extra Additional ‘Best of 2007’.

Comics for me are somewhere I can experience how one person or a close partnership can freely express themselves without the compromises so often forced on film, TV or other narrative forms. One of the greatest pleasures this year’s graphic novels gave me is an intimate insight into other lives and cultures, factual or fictitious, or both. For example, if like me you find that after a while, the relentless but limited news coverage of the Iraq war ends up just numbing you, I’d recommend turning to Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover (War On Want) by Sean Michael Wilson and Lee O’Connor. Here they expose the shameful ways that Western companies, including several based in Britain, are profiteering from the occupation, hard, harsh facts made human by being told through the eyes of one young Iraqi man returning from London to his utterly transformed homeland.

In contrast but equally riveting, Shooting War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) uses the fantastical properties of comics to project the Iraq war into the future, to 2011. Through their anti-hero Jimmy Burns, a guerilla-blogger who becomes a satellite news media star, Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman mercilessly satirise how high-tech warfare, political powerplays and media paranoia will go on escalating to even more nightmarish scenarios.

I was also swept up in Nick Abadzis’ wonderful work of historical documentary, looking at the suppressed secrets and emotional background behind the Sputnik 2 satellite launch 50 years ago and how Laika (First Second) became the first dog in space, in fact the first living creature rocketed to the stars.

Other favourites among this year’s rich harvest are Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Faber/Drawn & Quarterly) about a flawed Japanese-American guy’s floundering romances; Aya‘s portrait of teenagers in 1970s Ivory Coast by Parisian couple Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Cape/Drawn & Quarterly); and Exit Wounds (Cape/Drawn & Quarterly) by Rutu Modan, set in Tel Aviv about a son’s search for his missing father who may have died in a Palestinian suicide bombing.

My unmissable manga is demonic thriller Monster (Viz) by Naoki Urasawa, who keeps stoking the tension. I was stunned in Volume 9 by Urasawa’s switch to sepia cartoonish style for an utterly creepy Czech children’s book, and later by an electrifiyng build-up worthy of De Palma as the Monster, beautiful yet lethal Johan, stares into the ‘blind’ eyes of his latest victim.

Closer to home I’d also pick out Bryan Talbot’s brain-expanding Alice In Sunderland (Cape) revealing the interweaving histories of Lewis Carroll, his muse Alice Liddell and Talbot’s hometown. A pair of more textual highpoints were the belated translation of Moomin author Tove Jansson’s last prose novel Fair Play (Sort Of Books) and Andrzej Klimowski’s latest, Horace Dorlan (Faber) which alternates from his signature stark silent visuals to passages of pure prose to disquieting effect.

No one should dismiss Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe (Cape) as merely lightweight literariness for liberal Guardian readers only; she has crafted a subtly scathing commentary on class, city versus country and our celebrity-obsessed culture.
 
And from the flourishing UK small press scene Trains Are… Mint (Rolling Stock Press) stands out, Oliver East’s mix of a confidential, opinionated sketchbook diary of how he walks alongside the railway tracks from Manchester to Blackpool stations and one observer’s record of this England’s odd, sometimes offputting ‘ordinary’ modern towns and inhabitants. A compilation of the first three issues is due around February from Blank Slate Books.

Finally, I must mention Simone Lia’s complete collected Fluffy hardback (Cape), the sort of apparently simple, uncanny, touching tale comics can do so well, about a harried, unmarried man’s quest for love, when love is right under his nose in the form of his ‘adopted’ child, a bunny in denial that it is really a rabbit, even when it leaves droppings on the sofa.

And below are some of My Other Extra Additional ‘Best of 2007’:


Liebe Schaut Weg
by Line Hoven
Reprodukt
€14.00
Where do you belong, where is your true home, when your parents come from two sides of the Atlantic, and your grandparents from two sides of the Second World War? Perhaps one way to understand yourself is to understand where your parents came from and what made them who they are. Line Hoven is the daughter of a German father and an American mother. She appears in person only on the last two pages of this collection as a puzzled little girl who asks, "When are we going back home, Mommy?" and is reassured, "We are at home, honey." More a work of family history than autobiography, the quartet of tales in Liebe Schaut Weg (Love Looks Away) record one daughter’s attempt to document how her parents grew up, met and married, and after her father’s struggles to cope with the English language, settled in Germany.

With a mastery reminiscent of Thomas Ott, Hoven draws on scraperboard, a slow, demanding medium, her multiple incisions adding to the texture and intensity of emotion, place and atmosphere that we can examine in her literally arresting visuals. Her technique does not interrupt the flow of our reading, but it does add to the sheer presence of her drawings which invite us to return and reflect on their shimmering detail. Remarkably she even draws every word and mark on the papers and ephemera that begin each tale: her grandfather’s identity card, a pair of ice-skating tickets, a bill for a washing machine, an airline ticket. She adopts mainly a rhythm of four evenly-sized panels per page, with occasional two-panel panoramas and telling full pages for punctuation. As for text, she keeps her dialogues pointed and restrained, often leaving panels silent to let her images do the talking. As a story of two countries and cultures, her book is unusual in using German and English, as appropriate to the setting and situation. My school German pretty much sufficed, but it might have been useful to include a brief translation, and once or twice the English is slightly unnatural. Between each story she places two pages of family photos, also drawn, with rather loosely handwritten captions beneath.

Her opening tale takes us back to her grandfather Erich Hoven’s boyhood as a member of Hitler’s Youth Movement and his dilemma when he discovers that the classical music he loves listening to on his home-made radio is by a Jewish composer, Mendelssohn. Notably his photograph as a ‘Jugend’ member is missing from the photo album page, but we see his marriage and children, including Reinhard, Line’s eventual father.

The hit song Baby, It’s Cold Outside provides the title for her second snapshot set in America’s snowy winter of 1942 during her grandmother Catherine’s teenage years in Michigan. The war hangs over her life too. Her patriotic boyfriend tells her, "I really hope we beat those Germans" and tries to enlist in the army, only to be rejected as unfit. In this story’s photographic coda, we see that they marry in 1945 and have their first child Charlotte Lorey, Line’s mother-to-be.

The third episode returns to Germany and Reinhard’s youth. A quiet, bookish lad, his love of science and science fiction is stifled by a demanding mother but made startlingly real when they watch a rocket launch on television in 1958. That their world is changing rapidly is also signalled by the latest vacuum cleaners, washing machines and other mod cons which his mother pores over in her glossy magazines.

Ten years later and the two families’ sagas entwine in the fourth incident. ‘Come closer’, when Charlotte, good at German, flies to Bonn to study literature for two years. It’s here that she meets and falls for Reinhard. Hoven cleverly handles the strains as Charlotte’s all-American parents take the flight over to Bonn and especially during a dinner when they meet Reinhard’s mother and father. Charlotte and Reinhard’s hopes for marriage are dashed when Charlotte’s father refuses his consent, his anti-German prejudice hardly diminished since the war. But her mother intervenes and finally they marry and move "over there" to America. The concluding scenes encapsulate Reinhard’s difficulties adjusting to his new life and language, prompting the young couple’s decision to relocate with their young daughter, Line, to Germany, back to "home".

Photographs only show us so much, big occasions, tiny moments, fleeting smiles, as they sit on the living room wall on the book’s front cover. By filling in those events between these snaps, Hoven’s lovingly crafted chronicle places them within a larger, more complex context and gives them a deeper resonance which anyone can respond to. Whatever differences and difficulties between her parents’ families, she show that "love looks away", as the title says, because there can be forgiveness and understanding. Visit Line Hoven’s web-site to view sample pages of Liebe Schaut Weg.


Les Isolés
by Alexandre Franc
Editions Paquet
€16.50
In France this year, the equivalent of over ten new comic albums in French were published every day, including Christmas, a bulimia of bandes dessinée that few if any can truly keep abreast of. Somehow, the Angoulême Festival’s jury tries to pick out the gems and put fifty of them into their Official Selection for best books of the year. You can check out 2007’s Top 50 with English summaries here.

For whatever reason, Les Isolés (The Isolated) didn’t make their shortlist but it impressed me and has stayed in my head ever since. It’s a chilling and cryptic tragedy about Barbara and Philippe Lerouge, a young childless couple from Versailles who have grown apart after ten years of marriage and work. On the verge of separating, they decide to spend a week’s complete break at a modest motel by the sea to try and restore their crumbling relationship. It’s got to the point where they check into separate rooms. Their holiday gets off to a bad start when much to Barbara’s annoyance she finds that Philippe has packed a stack of his dreary economics textbooks so he can work on an article and she storms out.

Palpable tensions bristle in the air throughout this book and not just between this husband and wife who have become strangers to each other. The motel’s smarmy manager fancies Barbara, and so in his own way does his assistant, the tall, bespectacled, tongue-tied simpleton and scapegoat Rémi, whose main communication is through drawings of squid, jellyfish and other local marine life. We soon learn that last year Barbara panicked after two months of pregnancy that she would have to look after another burden in addition to Philippe and so decided to abort their baby. It seems that finally neither of them have come to terms with her action. And which died first, their child or their love?

Some fascinating things are going on in Alexandre Franc’s first album as he uses many of the graphic and symbolic strengths of comics to construct a clever multi-layered psychodrama, with hints of Hitchcock and Bergman, that rewards observant reading and re-reading. Franc sticks mostly to a regular nine-panel grid to clarify shifts in expression and action, closely, moment to moment and to add to the claustrophobia and solitude in which our isolated quartet, the only human characters we ever see, find themselves. Every panel counts. He has opted for an unfussy, almost clinical ‘clear line’ style, pared down and controlled but with a certain elegance, resembling a simplified Daniel Clowes, especially on Barbara’s blank, stressed-out face. At the same time he is not uncomfortable with drawing Rémi as much less ‘realistic’ big-nosed cartoon or slipping Barbara and Philippe into a humorous ‘big-head’ style for six panels to convey a brief moment of childish fun.

Franc’s colours are limited, flat and muted, although, perhaps in a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, small telltale elements of red punctuate regularly, also linking to the couple’s surname Lerouge (The red): the room keys; her bathing suit; a sunset; the manager’s cheesy socks; Rémi’s shirts, more than once splitting off his back; his clown’s nose; the blood of a freshly caught fish. Several understated moments linger in my mind: Barbara sleeping alone with a small toy rabbit; her defecating outside in the rain; her masturbation fantasy in her car, only to find Rémi hiding in the back; her confused feelings towards Rémi, tenderness and repulsion, almost as if he were a child substitute, and yet her apparent attempts to kill him on the beach; Philippe talking to himself on the quayside, perhaps to his unborn child; a breeze on the surface of the water like "a soul in pain". The final twists-upon-twists and the closing spread illustration do not disappoint.

Les Isolés is a 64-page hardback, part of Paquet’s Discover collection for brand new talents. I hadn’t realised when I first saw it last July that I had met Franc before when I was curating the Alan Moore exhibition in Belgium. Only when he kindly drew a ‘dédicace’ for me and wrote in my copy did I learn that this album was, as he put it, "The ‘very’ graphic novel you wished me ‘good luck’ for when we met in Charleroi in 2004." You can see the first few pages of Franc’s smart, hugely promising debut on his site and see more and read an interview with him (in French) here.


This Will All End In Tears
by Joe Ollmann
Insomniac Press
$16.95
"Fish, company, and especially your own stories, all tend to stink after three days. And the same is true of five years." Like his subjects, Ollmann is too hard on himself. Five years work has resulted in five compelling character studies, which bagged him Best Book of the Year in Canada’s Doug Wright Awards. By chance, I sat next to him and his wife at the ceremony when they announced he was the winner and it clearly came as a total surprise and delight.

Ollmann’s blunt scripts and unsanitised caricatures in line and grey tones pull you into his players’ inner turmoils ticking by across a nine-panel grid. The self-hatred, desperation and poisonous fury at everyone bottled up inside ‘big boned’ Charlene. The agonising guilt and revulsion that ‘spindly intellectual’ Schultz suffers after his macho, hunting-loving co-workers cajole him into shooting a deer, which he can’t bring himself to butcher in his garage. The bagel shop employee Kevin betrayed by a colleague and harangued by his boss for a moment’s kindness to a single mother and her kids. The pressures on Dennis, youngest in a disintegrating, dysfunctional family, to renounce drink and shoulder responsibility for his older, mentally handicapped brother. The doubts and desires plaguing the faith of Amy, a young, motherless virgin waitress, drawn to the diner’s moody new chef. Few write as fiercely, unflinchingly and unforgettably as Ollmann about those bitterest recriminations people hold against others and themselves. He is a very deserving winner.


The Complete Dick Tracy Vol 1: 1931-1933
by Chester Gould
IDW Publishing
$29.99
Pinch yourself and you’ll realise that we are probably living now in what may be the a new Golden Age of American newspaper strip reprint collections, with Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Flash Gordon, Peanuts, Popeye, Gasoline Alley, Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend, Terry & The Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, On Stage, Moomin, even DondiLittle Sammy Sneeze (complete with free tissue box cover!) and still more on the horizon. Probably the first Golden Age of these archival books took off in the early 1970s in the English language, pioneered by Woody Gelman of the original Hyperion Press, followed by another boom during the Eighties courtesy of NBM, Fantagraphics, Eclipse, Kitchen Sink, Rick Marshall’s Remco and others. There are marked differences between these previous eras and today, the principal ones being the higher reproduction and production values, the mainly hardcover deluxe design made possible by cheaper printing in Asia, and the ambition to issue complete, comprehensive restorations of an entire oeuvre over multiple volumes, something which stronger public interest and sales may well help to achieve.

IDW have adopted a similar landscape, dustjacketed hardback format as Fantagraphics on Peanuts and Drawn & Quarterly for Gasoline Alley with this new series of chunky tomes representing all fifty years of Dick Tracy by his creator Chester Gould. With the cover, endpapers and intro sections designed in subtle sepia, mustard and grey-green tones by Ashley Wood, the first IDW compilation includes all of the earliest daily strips right from the start in October 12th and all of the non-continuity colour Sundays. In contrast, the 1978 book Dick Tracy: The Thirties Tommy Guns & Hard Times from Crown didn’t start the dailies until November 16th, omitting more than the first month, and dropped the first ten colour Sundays too. Reproduction in black and white is far crisper and cleaner in the IDW edition, another advantage allowing you to appreciate fully Gould’s rich, atmospheric cross-hatching. I also noticed here how Gould lightly shaded the bottom edges of several of his balloons, as if to make them three-dimensional, but curiously only from December 21st 1931 to February 13th 1932.

On a minor minus side, the earliest colour Sundays appear quite subdued, even faded, in the IDW version, on browned backgrounds, and without ‘Cigarette Sadie’, Gould’s comedy ‘bottom’ strip, used to fill out the tabloid pages format, which ran in the early Thirties, a four-panel strip about a cigarette salesgirl. At least few of those ‘Collect the set’ stamps that Gould ran next to the Sadie strips pop up in the introduction. So, overall, the IDW version is a marked improvement on the previous Crown book and Blackthorne’s erratic Eighties comic books. This is the one. With three volumes out already and plenty more to come, clear some space on your bookshelves for tales torn from the front page headlines about fast guns and freakish gangsters, our chisel-jawed detective and this long-suffering fiancé Tess Trueheart, and all the other ingredients that make up this addictive day-by-day serial of Gould versus Evil.


Glömp Vol 9
by various artists
Boing Being
€25.00
It’s a vibrant time for book-format anthologies of comics - the Swedish C’est Bon Anthology, Fantagraphics’ Mome quarterly and Hot Wired Comics, Buenaventura’s Kramer’s Ergot, Ballantine/Villard’s Flight, Italy’s Canicola, Mammoth’s Best New Manga, and self-congratulatory North American ‘Best Ofs’ from Houghton Mifflin (edited by Chris Ware) and Yale University Press (two volumes edited by Ivan Brunetti). But this 308-page chunk, nearly all in colour, is gloriously unpredictable and filled with thirteen Finnish and seventeen international experimentalists, compiled with care and flair by editor and gifted artist Tommi Musturi. Don’t worry, all these works come wordless, in English or with translations underneath. It’s also proof positive that Finland is spawning some of this new century’s most distinctive innovators. Take a look at samples here.


Silverfish
by David Lapham
DC/Vertigo
$24.99
Someone in Hollywood is probably eyeing this gripping noir rollercoaster-ride, told in mostly cinema-screen-shaped panels in greytoned monochrome, as a perfect storyboard for a movie. But Lapham, of Stray Bullets fame, proves again here how much more terrifying the soundless, immobile comics, the ‘stillies’, can be compared to mere movies, despite all the big screen’s vastly enlarged, photographed superstar actors, dizzying movement and manipulative music scores. Things start to go seriously wrong when a daughter starts unearthing her stepmother’s guilty past. One prank phone call unleashes a deranged murderer on their trail, possessed by sharp-toothed fish filling his head, intent on slaying her and her delicate asthmatic younger sister. Relentlessly Lapham paces the escalating terror with precision, varying tight, structured eight-panel pages with key points and climaxes singled out as solitary panels outside the grid. Participate and you’ll find that the terror stays in those panels, accumulating page after page, 160 of them, for you to look at over and over, to draw you in to feel their power seething in America’s darkest crime comic this year.


Dragon Head
by Minetaro Mochizuki
TokyoPop
$9.99
Speaking of the uncanny cumulative force of sequential art, this nine-volume saga forces you to look at an intimidating welter of incredible drawings of devastation and desperation, well over 1,200 pages of a post-apocalyptic near-future Tokyo and a ragged bunch of survivors. Believe me, you have never seen such a concentration of cracks, rubble, concrete, mud, shadows and shudders, the work of some sort of madman-artist determined to convince you that you are there too, with them, enduring and sharing this decimation, struggling to make sense of the insanity around them. In one masterful sequence in Volume 7, suggesting the extent and maybe the causes behind the decimation of Japan, four young survivors fly in search of the long-dormant Mount Fuji. Instead they find vast clouds and flaming larva flows and where the volcano should be lies a gaping hole. They take their helicoptor down into the crater, which starts to fill up each panel more and more as they, and we, lose sight of the cliff edge. Eventually total blackness fills a two-page spread, bleeding of the edge of the pages, blotting out all light. The effect of turning that last page is like feeling the dizzying vertigo of losing all your bearings and plunging into utter darkness. This is what manga, comics unleashed and uncompromised, can do.


Father Of The Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer
Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips
by David Kunzle
University of Mississippi Press
$25.00 and $65.00 respectively
And speaking of what this medium can do, at last the early 19th century Swiss ‘inventor’ and first theoretician of comics gets the treatment in English he deserves. British-born Kunzle, one of comics’ most perceptive historians, offers us a thorough analysis of Töpffer’s role in comics and the translation of the entirety of his seminal graphic novels. My only misgiving is the latter book’s format, as putting the wide landscape pages into an upright portrait hardback makes for some awkward reading. Here you will find irrefutable evidence that decades before the flap-eared, gap-toothed Yellow Kid romped through New York’s Hogan’s Alley, the Irish urchin’s European forebears, Töpffer’s eccentric leading players, dreamers and romantics, were already embroiled in elaborate, substantial comedies of manners and lunatic love stories, and employing so many of the techniques of comics (and film), long, long before they were ‘invented’ elsewhere.

Posted: December 30, 2007

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Featured Books

THE BEST OF 2007

Iraq:
Operation Corporate Takeover

by Wilson & O’Connor


Shooting War
by Lappé & Goldman


Shortcomings
by Adrian Tomine


Exit Wounds
by Rutu Modan


Alice In Sunderland
by Bryan Talbot


Fair Play
by Tove Jansson

OTHER EXTRA ADDITIONAL
BEST OF 2007


Liebe Schaut Weg
by Line Hoven
(Reprodukt)


Les Isolés
by Alexandre Franc
(Editions Paquet)


This Will All End In Tears
by Joe Ollmann
(Insomniac Press)


The Complete Dick Tracy Vol 1: 1931-1933
by Chester Gould
(IDW Publishing)


Glömp Vol 9
by various artists
(Boing Being)


Silverfish
by David Lapham
(DC/Vertigo)


Dragon Head
by Minetaro Mochizuki
(TokyoPop)


Father Of The Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer
by David Kunzle
(University of Mississippi)


Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips
by David Kunzle
(University of Mississippi)