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PG Tips No. 22:

The Best Of 2008 Part 1 - Graphic Novels & Comics

Welcome back - let me wish you a Happy New Year of the Cow and may it be the best yet for all of us! Looking back over last year’s abundant crop of OGNs (original graphic novels) and compilations, below I’ve picked out a Top Ten of my favourite Graphic Novels or Comics in Book Form. In Part 2 you’ll find a further chart of the Books About Comics which I enjoyed the most in 2008.

Coming up next will be an International Perspective as my comics friends and I select our Best of 2008 from non-English language or North American/British Graphic Novels and, looking ahead, my choices for the Most Anticipated Graphic Novels of 2009. By the way, in a week or two I’ll be talking with US critics Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter and Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics, on Robin McConnell’s Inkstuds podcast about the Best of 2008, so listen out for that.

by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki
Groundwood Books, $18.95
Skim, the graphic novel by the Canadian Tamaki cousins, is her diary, its hand-drawn spine warning ‘Skim’s Journal, Private Property!’ The intimate truths we glean from her entries and thought-track regularly contrast or counter with her conduct and comments to others, as she copes with her broken arm, her separated parents, her gradual disillusionment with her sassy best friend and her awakening sense of self. When her classmates are rocked by the suicide of one girl’s boyfriend, a jock rumoured to be gay, her teachers overcompensate in their grief-counseling. All except Skim’s favourite, Drama and English teacher Ms Archer, a "freak" like her, the first person to whom she opens up over shared illicit cigarettes. This sparks Skim’s first love, their secret kiss in the woods set within one silent spread of lush nature. Writer Mariko and artist Jillian stunningly entwine their acute dialogues and visual riches in brush, soft pencil and grey tones, illuminating this adolescent romance in all its conflicted depths. Walker Books are releasing a British paperback edition in May 2009 with a new and equally lovely cover.

Rumble Strip
by Woodrow Phoenix
Myriad Editions, £12.99
"If you want to get away with murder, buy a car." The killing of his young sister aged 11 in a car accident inspired Woodrow Phoenix to reassess the impact automobiles have on our lives. As a driver himself, Phoenix understands the dangers and pleasures of being behind the wheel, building a persuasive argument out of stark highway signage and statistics. Phoenix loves his Audi A3, so he’s perfectly placed to deliver this passionate wake-up call about the absurdities of road deaths, over 1.2 million of us worldwide each year. How can killer-drivers so often get away with little more than a fine, reprimand, and perhaps a temporary ban? His unique approach drops all dialogue and balloons and uses only captions for his ascerbic, discomforting commentary, accompanied by subjective views of roads and their painted markings of directions and abstract figures, eerily devoid of any cars or real people. Without showing a single human being, this is an extraordinarily human book, whose ideas and questions about how the car affects your life will echo in your mind long after you’ve finished reading it, whether you’re a driver, or a pedestrian, or both.

Alan’s War
by Emmanuel Guibert
First Second Books, $24.00
Guibert illuminates in tender outlines and lustrous washes the World War Two reminiscences of an American G.I., Alan Cope, whom he first met in 1994 when Alan was 69 and living with his wife on a small island off the French Atlantic Coast. Though nearly 40 years his junior, Guibert struck up an intense friendship and spontaneous collaboration with this vivid raconteur, recording hours of his candid stories in his distinct foreign French. Over the next five years, Cope quickly grew to trust Guibert’s visualisations, leaving him free to picture his life as he imagined it from the veteran’s tapes, letters, phone calls and sketches. Across forty chapters, they offer no gung-ho glories of combat but pinpoint incidents of banality, incompetence, humour and horror, and above all Cope’s humanity and quest for meaning. After seriously contemplating the priesthood, his growing disenchantment with religion and shallow consumerism led to him quitting America in 1948, never to return. Late in life, he realised, "I hadn’t lived the life of myself. I had lived the life of the person others had wanted me to be… And that person had never existed." After his death in 1999, Guibert found a way to reconnect to Cope by visiting friends and locations in America and Germany and through a photo album he left to him, reproduced at the back of the book. The reader cannot fail to respond to their friendship as it endures through this remarkable graphic biography.

Ordinary Victories: What Is Precious
by Manu Larcenet
NBM, $15.99
In NBM’s compact compilation of the third and fourth parts of his Ordinary Victories quartet from French giant Dargaud, Larcenet’s lead character Marco is a photographer of reportage shots of the local shipyard in decline. It’s where his elderly father, who has committed suicide, used to work and where Marco might have wound up working himself if photography hadn’t offered him a way out. The catalogue of a gallery show brings him to the attention of a former journalist, turned publisher, who offers him a book deal. In one scene, Marco discusses what drives his work with him:

"If I become a little what I’m photographing, the image will be interesting. If it doesn’t change me, it’s useless. It’s a failure. Nowadays, images dress products for consumption, embellish objects, make dubious ideas seductive… but that profusion doesn’t change us - we learn nothing from it."

To which the publisher replies: "It won’t last. We can’t make do without the essential for very long."

But these days, where do we go to find "the essential"? You won’t find it in much of the mass-market news and entertainment media, that’s for sure, but that only confirms Sturgeon’s Law that "Ninety per cent of everything is crap." For instance, later in Ordinary Victories, after three months of the shipworkers striking in a vain attempt to avert the closure and demolition of the shipyard that has "united them in suffering", Marco’s newspaper editor dismisses further coverage of their story outright - "The subject you’ve brought me isn’t… a priority." Luckily, this "subject", and others, can find their outlet, audience and above all uncompromised, singular, personal expression, through graphic novels.

Sturgeon’s Law applies to graphic novels too, it has to be said. Now there’s been lots of hooplah lately in the States praising Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Bellybutton from Fantagraphics as one of the Best of 2008. This is most certainly not crap. It’s big central idea, a strained week-long family reunion in a beach-house where elderly grandparents stun their offspring by deciding to divorce after 40 years togeter, is a powerful, intriguing one but it never quite delivers or makes me feel. Scenes of dysfunction, first sex or father-son awkwardness play out too predictably, characterisation is mostly shallow and we never seem to get any deeper or start to care. The son’s discovery of a hidden chest of papers leaves us puzzled - what should we make of the thinly disguised but heavy-handed inscription on its lid: "This Throne Is Yours Soon"? Sepia ink, cool brown cardboard covers, some playful layouts and sheer length, clocking in at over 700 pages, aren’t enough.

To get a bit of perspective here, Shaw’s is a notable, noble effort by a young American cartoonist who, I am sure, will produce wonders in the future. In fact, Shaw already is, online with Bodyworld, to be collected in book form. But put BB alongside this Ordinary Victories and it pales. Start reading and start observing Larcenet and within only a few pages he touches far more poetically and poignantly on much more. Then, across far fewer pages, 128 in all, of expressively, skilfully written, illustrated and coloured comics, he shows how Marco examines losing his father, his mother’s grieving, his partner’s desire to have a child and his reluctance, the exclusion of any mention of him in his father’s diaries, how the shipyard co-workers rise up but in the end resign themselves to losing their livelihood, even while rejoicing at Sarkozy’s election victory, and the joys and worries of having a little daughter.

And as well as all this, he has Marco gradually unravel his father’s part in the Algerian War, horrors that secretly harrowed him and, it seems, drove him to suicide. So underlying all of this family saga, Larcenet is dealing here with a fundamental national trauma still keenly felt by the French, the War of Algiers and its damaging after-effects. This kernal is similar to the way Chris Ware addresses white America’s guilty legacy of the slave trade and racism at the heart of his Jimmy Corrigan, in the scene where Jimmy finally meets his father’s secret mixed-race daughter. Ordinary Victories is undoubtedly French in its settings and references and that unfamiliarity may contribute to its being underappreciated across the pond, but deal with it and you’ll find it doesn’t take much to respond to its universal themes and emotions. The rewards are rich.

Britten & Brülightly
by Hannah Berry
Jonathan Cape, £12.99
Nothing is black and white in Hannah Berry’s watercoloured noir, her murky, moody washes echoing the moral shades of grey of her cast. This includes her downtrodden detective from Ecuador (British Berry has connections to this country on her mother’s side), Fernández Britten. He is hired by a publisher’s daughter to uncover the truth about her fiancé‘s supposed suicide. A ‘heartbreaker’ for sixteen years, for once Britten would like the painful truths he has to deliver to a client to have a positive effect. Across 100 pages, Berry has a wry, witty way with words, from Britten’s remorseful handwritten voiceover to his dialogues with his surreal partner, a cynical teabag! Where else will you read lines like, "Look, I’m sorry: I infused in your waistcoat"? Another remarkable debut straight out of the gate from a young woman graphic novelist, which is coming out in 2009 in America from Metropolitan and in France from Casterman.

Aldebaran: Vol 1 The Catastrophe, Vol 2 The Group
first two volumes by Leo
Cinebook, £9.99 each
This ecological science fiction epic came as a revelation. It’s all too easy to poo-poo the mainstream, standardised Francophone bande dessinée mass market, when so much is mired in formula and when amazing work is flourishing elsewhere in French, from L’Association, Fremok, L’An 2, Cornelius, Actes Sud and all the rest of the "independent" houses. But there is real quality within the "B.D." mass production like this series, if you know where to look. Dylan Horrocks first alerted me to this some years ago and now British-based Cinebook are releasing the whole series and rapidly, closer to the pace of manga. Whereas the French had to wait fifteen years, from 1990 to 2005, for Brazilian-born Leo to write and draw all of the ten hardback albums, we can now pick up the two complete cycles so far, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse, in five double volumes issued every six months or so. Quite apart from the enjoyable thriller, mystery and romance aspects of this tale, what captivates me are the brilliantly imagined fauna and flora on this isolated and very watery colonised planet, totally convincing like some alien wildlife documentary, and the feeling of experiencing a foreign culture with its peculiar customs, architecture and machinery and people’s daily struggle against a repressive, religion-fueled regime. Leo conjures a real sense of wonder.

by Yuichi Yokoyama
PictureBox, $19.99  
This speechless, soundless 195-page art-manga is the perfect accompaniment to any train journey. It transported me while on the London tube and British rail en route to my mother’s. As fellow strangers on a train we seem to enter a special limbo, being between one place and the next, in a transitory state. Yokoyama evokes that detached, slightly wary observation between passengers as they try to avoid physical and eye contact and preserve their personal space. His protagonists, all of them male, mostly maintain what he describes in the footnotes as "severe and urban expressions on their faces", cool, indifferent, almost blank, like fashion models, looking without seeing, with a hint of homoeroticism in these male gazes. He revels in the textures, organic and man-made, the plays of light, shadow, smokes, the everchanging landscapes and cityscapes rushing by, the varied designs of seating, clothes, advertisements. Crisply, fastidiously drawn, many pages play with trompe l’oeil effects and puzzle-like viewpoints forcing the reader-viewer to re-orientate and observe attentively. Whose viewpoint are we seeing? And from what angle? Whose eyes are we looking through? Are they human eyes at all? He shows us a marvel of a smooth-running integrated transport system, where congestion never causes delays and huge numbers are in constant process and progress. Yokoyama’s heightened sense of presence while in motion invites us to re-evaluate how strange our own travelling experiences can be.

Freedom Comics
edited and published by Coco Wang
This is a chunky, limited edition tome translating underground comix from mainland China, drawn from emerging artists based principally in Beijing and Shanghai and featured in the two principal showcases, Cult Youth and Special Comics. A bright cartoonist herself, Coco Wang helped me discover these amazing young talents, while I was curating Manhua! China Comics Now in March-April 2008, the first exhibition in Britain of contemporary Chinese comics. Their styles owe more to Western avant-garde styles than either the painterly classically illustrative approach of "lianhuanhua" of the past or the familiar big-eyed manga tropes dominant today. Their themes are topical, satirical, often cynical, but mostly avoid direct confrontation or specific caricature, preferring to couch their ideas in more surreal or fantasy scenarios. Their distrust of capitalism as much as communism is balanced by their energy and commitment to the comics medium, despite the obstacles they face as non-state-sanctioned cartoonists, such as not being permitted to print, sell or distribute their titles officially or openly. Now that’s comix that are truly underground.

Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol 1
by Harold Gray
IDW, $39.99
Would you believe that Harold Gray kept the original artwork, or where missing, quality proofs, for all of his daily episodes? Shooting from these amazing sources, here’s the opportunity to luxuriate in every succinctly caught expression, gesture and locale. One favorite early strip shows his curly red-haired tyke as the newly-arrived toast of a lavish dinner party, when Annie gives back to the waiter all of the extra, excessive cutlery around her plate, insisting she can manage perfectly well with just the one set. Clear those bookshelves now, this is an essential addition to your library.

Rick Random: Space Detective
edited by Steve Holland
Prion Books Ltd, £14.99
The main artist here, Ron Turner, was Britain’s answer to Jack Kirby, and recalls Mac Raboy too on Flash Gordon, when it came to visualising futuristic spacecraft, technology, aliens and spacesuits. Like Kirby and Wood’s Sky Masters from a similar period, this is yesterday’s tomorrow made manifest, all Fifties retro tailfins, grilles, rocket engines, control panels and gleaming metallics. This glorious guilty pleasure offers a bumper 656 pages of comics which benefit from being enlarged 25 per cent from the original pocket-sized Super Detective Library booklets. Noted author Harry Harrison even penned some of the scripts here.

And here’s the Next Best Ten of the Rest that all came high up on my shortlist of favourites -  and there are plenty more - phew, it’s been quite a year!

What It Is
by Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly
It’s a crime that Barry is virtually unknown in Britain, but this warm, hugely motivating exploration of sustaining creativity and expression within her and in all of us will change that, out next month in the UK from Cape. She is amazing live and she’s high on the wish-list for Comica 09.

by Naoki Urasawa
This twisting, twisted thriller rammed the pedal to the floor right to the very last page. A modern manga masterwork.

by Art Spiegelman
For his new intro, 19 dense, intense autobiographical pages that chop and change various flashbacks and flashforwards which are as rich and fascinating as any of his 1970s experiments/lessons reprinted here and still fresh after 30 years. Read and learn.

Love & Rockets: New Stories Vol 1
by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics Books
Beto cuts loose again with some dark and/or wacky pieces here, while Jaime’s spin on superheroines spices them up with the most joyful escalation of craziness and tenderness, tantalising backstories and sidelines, announcing "The Jaime Age of Superheroes!"

Kramer’s Ergot 7
edited by Sammy Harkham
Beunaventura Press
Only just hitting these shores this week, but I’ve seen a preview CD. The lost, vast canvas of the original American Sunday funnies in colour that brought us Nemo and Krazy Kat is brought back and entrusted to some of this age’s greatest cartoonists.

Acme Novelty Library #19
by Chris Ware
Self-published, distributed by Drawn & Quarterly
Speaking of which, Ware continues to expand the medium’s expressivity and unique capacities, building on past masters, while at the same time revealing lives both subtle and raw. Essential.

Red Colored Elegy
by Seiichi Hayashi
Drawn & Quarterly
Peter Birkemoe at The Beguiling alerted me in August 2007 at the Toronto Comic Art Festival to this 1970s avant garde manga which is haunting, heartbreaking, demanding but rewarding. Proof that manga have already been to places thirty years ago which other comics  can barely conceive of still.

by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Marvel Icon
In a class of its own, the best crime fiction in American comic books, and maybe anywhere else for that matter.

by various
Randon House
What does this "DFC" stand for? Well it is "Delivered Fridays Consistently" and it’s "Definitely First Class". The DFC actually stands for The David Fickling Comic, and he is the determined publiser, backed by powerful Random House, who has made the most significant injection of new ideas and creative talent into British all-ages comics in a decade. You can’t buy it in any shops, you have to subscribe online and every Friday it arrives in your morning mail. There’s lots of quality here, even a sea-faring serial, John Blake, written by Philip Pullman of Golden Compass fame, but if I had to pick just two stand-out series they would be Sarah McIntyre’s charming sheep-and-rabbit duo Vern and Lettuce, and Mezolith, a caveboy drama written by Ben Hegarty and drawn by Adam Brockbank, concept designer and storyboarder for the Harry Potter movies. Are you ready for their monstrous giant blue baby or their naked, overweight she-creature? This is easilly the most vivid, arresting children’s adventure I’ve come across anywhere all year, a masterpiece in the making.

Swallow Me Whole
by Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions
Wonderful page-turning atmosphere and tension, this has stayed with me, its symbolism, opacity and open-ending intriguing and puzzling me equally. What will you make of it? Experience it for yourself.

Other ‘Best Of 2008’ Lists:
Douglas Wolk
Publishers Weekly
Comic Book Resources: Comics
Comic Book Resources: Manga
School Library Journal
National Public Radio: Graphic Novels
National Public Radio: Superheroes
Comixology: Part 1, Part 2
Pop Culture Shock: Manga
The Daily Cross Hatch

Posted: January 4, 2009

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Coco Wang
Emmanuel Guibert
Hannah Berry
Harold Gray
Jillian Tamaki
Manu Larcenet
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Year In Review
Yuichi Yokoyama

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Featured Books


by Jillian Tamaki
& Mariko Tamaki

Rumble Strip
by Woodrow Phoenix

Alan’s War
by Emmanuel Guibert

Ordinary Victories
by Manu Larcenet

Britten & Brülightly
by Hannah Berry

by Leo

by Yuichi Yokoyama

Freedom Comics
by Coco Wang

Little Orphan Annie Vol 1

by Harold Gray

Rick Random:
Space Detective

edited by Steve Holland