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PG Tips No. 29:

The Best Of 2009: Graphic Novels

End of the year, end of a decade, and we’ve gone out in fine style when it comes to comics, manga and graphic novels. Opportunities through last year also enabled me to meet some amazing people and attend some amazing events here in Britain and around the comics world. I’ve talked about the medium to lots of different audiences, even in the lofty Reynolds Room at the Royal Academy.

Still, of all of them, my days with the kids at Oundle School in Cambridgeshire and The Driffield School in Yorkshire (with the ebullient Dr. Mel Gibson) were highlights of 2009. The Driffield headmaster really got into the spirit of the superhero-themed day by bursting into morning assembly dressed up as Bananaman and handing out bananas to the gobsmacked pupils. Some of them looked genuinely traumatised, what with the headmistress also wearing a full Batgirl outfit. And it didn’t stop there - later, two other staff were teaching disguised in full Joker and Hulk outfits and make-up. Now there’s dedication for you (and perhaps less positively, more reinforcement that comics equals superheroes, but never mind).

The Driffield School, (l to r): a teacher dressed as The Joker,
Paul Gravett, Mel Gibson and The Hulk (alias Bob McKirdy).
Photo by Kit Hamilton

Curating two exhibitions was another buzz, both revamping the Manhua! China Comics Now show for the perfect setting of The Oriental Museum in Durham, and devising In Search of the Atom Style with Eric Verhoest in one of the shining spheres of Brussel’s iconic Atomium monument. I was also privileged to be invited to some great comics festivals, including brand new ones like NextComic in Linz, Austria, as well as the warm, welcoming SPX in Stockholm, Sweden, Comic Nostrum in Palma, Mallorca and Komikazen in Ravenna, Italy.

My trip to Korea was unforgettable, attending BICOF, the Bucheon International Comics Festival but also the opening of their truly stunning new Manhwa Centre, a high-tech, glass-and-steel cathedral to sequential art. Thanks to my friend Jeeyeon Kim I was able to meet some of the grand masters of Korean comics, including my hero Sanho Kim, whose work I’ve been fascinated by since discovering him in Seventies Charlton horror comics. I was also honoured to visit Doha, author of The Great Catsby from Net Comics, in his studio. Look out for my interviews with these two manhwa geniuses.

Interviewing Doha, author of The Great Catsby, in his studio in Seoul.

And it was a milestone year for books too, so let me run through my PG Tips of the Best of last year in four categories, starting with Best Graphic Novels. I’ll follow this up with Best Manga/Manhwa/Manhua, Best Heritage or Reprint Books, and Best Books About Comics.

No 1:
The Photographer
by Emmanuel Guibert
This finally came out on top of the bunch for me because of its urgent topicality, its surprising success at integrating comics with photography, its reportage impact recording one man’s extraordinary experiences enduring a Doctors without Borders medical relief mission, and Guibert’s supreme sensitivity in turning what was not captured on film into black lines and flat colours that totally convince.


No 2:
Asterios Polyp
by David Mazzucchelli
Coming a close second, this is a brilliant achievement for opening up the still-underused potentials of the medium. For some, the graphic refinements and formal inventions can make the lead characters seem remote at times. On the more technical side, Woodrow Phoenix and I were comparing the advance proof which Pantheon kindly sent me of digital printouts onto bright white paper, with the finished printed version. It’s clear that some brightness and gradations in the colours have been lost, notably in the yellow-to-orange ranges, when they were reproduced onto the duller recycled stock. I am holding onto that preview.

No 3:
Footnotes In Gaza
by Joe Sacco
Sacco’s return to Palestine sees him connecting to the people less as an autobiographical cartoonist and reportage journalist and more as a probing investigative historian, trying to corroborate conflicting recollections of two Israeli massacres from 1956. The book also marks a change in his artwork, as it becomes if anything even more rigorously honed, making every person, every corpse, every rock, distinct. Note that due to an error with printer’s files, the UK first edition is missing its four appendices, bibliography and ackowledgements, 29 pages which will be restored for the second printing.

No 4:
by David Small
You can get some incredible results when children’s picture book authors make the jump over to graphic novels - look at Raymond Briggs or Shaun Tan. In the case of David Small, his autobiographical memoir had me by the throat, appropriately, from its first tense caption, after four pages of silent panels: “Mom had her little cough…” Small’s postscript revelations about his troubled mother suggest that her life might make for an extraordinary graphic novel of its own. I was only underwhelmed by the odd cover.

No 5:
George Sprott
by Seth
Seth is on top form here. We have to wait some considerable time for each new Palookaville issue and I am sure Clyde Fans will be exquisite once it is complete, but since cutting “loose” (by Seth’s standards) on Wimbledon Green, he seems to found a way to be more playful and confident with his cartooning. A paperback is due from Cape in May.


No 6:
Years Of The Elephant
by Willy Linthout
My elderely landlady, where I was lodging during my second year off-campus at Cambridge, showed me this intense, almost Van Gogh-like painting of a tree in blossom in her front room. She told me she had painted it shortly after losing her husband to suicide. Terrible loss can sometimes result in astonishing outpourings, like this painting, and like Willy Linthout’s departure from his Urbanus comedy capers to channel his grief at losing his young son who killed himself. For all its surreal, sometimes humorous qualities, it speaks with an undeniable honesty.

No 7:
by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou & Alecos Papadatos
One of the qualities of comics I love is the sheer variety of subjects you can learn about from reading them. Here’s an accessible, exciting way to learn about Bertrand Russell’s life and thinking and enjoy some clever, self-referential musings in present-day Athens by the book’s team as they create the very book you are reading. Novelist Apostolos Doxiadis and his collaborators know just how to modulate their words and pictures, though sticking mainly to a “Clear Line” Franco-Belgian classicism. Some slightly more sophisticated approaches to comics, along the lines of a Seth or Chris Ware, might have helped at times to explain some of the abstract mathematical and logical issues more engagingly.

No 8:
The Illustrated Book Of Genesis
by Robert Crumb
The American cover, which is the same as the British one, consciously mimics an old-style comic book cover, teasing that there’s “nothing left out!” and it is all “graphically depicted!”  The back cover design reminded me of the old pre-horror EC comics Illustrated Tales from the Bible. The fact is, Crumb has not sensationalised the Old Testament, he has humanised and feminised it, subtly, as a way to critique its paternalism and question how so many civilisations can have been built upon it to this day. Crumb does not merely illustrate every word, he adds a lot of visual clues and cues, interpreting meaning between the lines. Michel Faber in The Guardian was let down by it, describing it as a “curio”. It may not be many people’s favourite work by Crumb, but I suspect it will stand as much more than that over time.

No 9:
Giraffes In My Hair
by Carol Swain & Bruce Paley
Another autobio memoir, I know, but Paley combines so perfectly with his partner Carol Swain to capture Paley’s walks on the wild side as he journeys through sex, drugs and rock’n'roll, from hippy to punk. I couldn’t help wonder though how an artist-partner might feel about drawing your loved one’s past sexual encounters and affairs. It’s been a special year for Swain with Crossing The Empty Quarter, a superb collection of her solo short stories, also out from Dark Horse. Hers has always been an utterly singular approach. 

No 10:
Salem Brownstone:
All Along The Watchtowers

by John Harris Dunning & Nikhil Singh
Who would every have thought that a children’s book publisher like Walker would get behind such a creepy, quirky, freaky tale of a teen-magician, his contortionist female pal and his alien fish-like familiar? Good eventually beats evil here as usual, but that’s one of the only things that’s vaguely “usual” here. Enjoy as the two-headed imagination of Dunning and Singh write and draw as if possessed. 

No 11:
by Jeremy Love
The landscape width of a computer-screen is becoming the shape of comics to come, or at least those serialised on the web and it’s changing the composition and pacing of the page in intriguing ways. That’s the format of this paperback compilation of the first chink of black American creator Jeremy Love’s ongoing online tale. It’s still running on DC Comics Zudacomics site and more than justifies the entire project on its own. Set in Charon, Mississippi in 1933, this blend of fantastical Deep South yarn-spinning and the struggles against racism introduces Lee Wagstaff, a winning young heroine with grit and spirit. Note that the “N” words get censored with asterisks. Shame about that crinkly binding, though.

And the rest of my Top Twenty-One Graphic Novels in brief:

No 12:
Talking Lines
by R.O. Blechman
There’s such humour and humanity to these little wobbly characters. The 110-page unpublished “Georgie” is a sweet, sad yet hopeful gem. “Fresh…fresh.”

No 13:
Pim and Francie
by Al Columbia
These distressed, distressing comics and illustrations repeat and escalate like a stuck record or never waking from a recurring nightmare.

No 14:
You’ll Never Know
by Carol Tyler
A tender, bittersweet tribute from a daughter to a father and his military service in a beautifully crafted, tactile memoir.

No 15:
by Bryan Talbot
Enormous, pun-fuelled funny-animal fun with the best cameo of Snowy ever.

No 16:
A.D. After Deluge
by Josh Neufeld
Lessons in survival and community when those you always trusted let everyone down. We shall not forget.

No 17:
Essex County Trilogy
by Jeff Lemire
These three books on Canadian lives are individually striking, and cumulatively stunning.
No 18:
Masterpiece Comics
by R. Sikoryak
Proof that literature’s finest fictions and American comics’ pulpiest traditions can make perfect bedfellows.

No 19:
The Complete Jack Survives
by Jerry Moriarty
What if you could reimagine your life today as if the father you lost and loved was living it again back in the Fifties?

No 20:
by Nigel Auchterlounie
Laugh-out-loud sexcapades of an irresponsible, irrepressible, irredeemable bastard.

No 21:
Ball Peen Hammer
by Adam Rapp & George O’Connor
Phew, this is some bleak future, shocking, even repellant in places, as well as raw and unforgettable. It hits home.

Posted: January 17, 2010


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