Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Patrick's Favorite Comics of 2007

Notes:

1. This is not a list of the best comics of 2007. There were simply too many 2007 publications I’ve not gotten around to reading yet for me to make such a claim for the list that follows.

2. This is not a list of the best comics I read in 2007. Some of the best comics I read this year were not published in 2007, and so do not appear on the list that follows.

3. I’m pretty generous in regards to considering new printings of old work for inclusion on the list. Basically, if it felt to me as though the representation of the work was such that it sufficiently enhanced or altered the experience of reading the material, or put the work in front of an audience who would not otherwise have had access to it, I was happy to consider it for inclusion.

4. This is a ranked list. The book in the number one spot is the best 2007 published comic I read this year.

***

10. Mushishi Vol. 1-2 (Yuki Urushibara) - My favorite manga of 2007 is an extraordinarily well-crafted work of genre fiction, concerning the exploits of a young man named Ginko who travels the world offering his skills as a Mushishi, one able to control the mysterious creatures known as Mushi, beings capable of assuming a variety of forms and abilities, and whose presence can wreak havoc with human lives. The two volumes released thus far consist of self contained short stories, with little in the way of character development or plot progression. It’s possible that an overarching storyline will develop over time, but for now I find this format a welcome relief from the sprawling, continuity dependent epics that plague so much of American genre comics. Urushibara’s strengths lie in her ability to craft compelling short stories and evoke a powerful sense of atmosphere through her deft writing and lovely, delicate artwork. The final story of the second volume, “The Veil Spore,” is among the finest short horror stories I’ve ever read.

9. All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant) - My favorite superhero comic of 2007 was this gem of a series by writer Grant Morrison and penciller Frank Quitely, featuring digital inks and colors by Jamie Grant. Morrison’s scripts perfectly evoke the joy and wonderment of the Silver Age Superman without sacrificing any of the writer’s own post-modern sensibilities. As good as the writing is, though, I have to admit that the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of these comics is the extraordinary artwork of Frank Quitely, whose wonderfully staged action sequences, obsessively detailed renderings, and perfect facial expressions and body language firmly establish him as one of the finest cartoonists working in or out of the so-called “mainstream.”

8. Maggots (Brian Chippendale) - I had an interesting relationship with this book, which had been my most anticipated release of the year. After the initial thrill of obtaining a copy of the handsome, pocket-sized volume had dimmed, I found myself somewhat frustrated at the meandering narrative, confusing layout, and sometimes unintelligible lettering. After reluctantly abandoning my attempt to read the entire book straight through, I returned to it after a break with a new reading strategy. I decided to tackle Maggots in small increments, sometimes only reading a few pages each day. This strategy proved effective, as those few minutes I spent reading the book became the experience I most looked forward to each day, and this extraordinary work by one of our finest living cartoonists, at once epic and intimate, truly came alive for me. After finishing the book (although I’ve not really finished it, of course, as it is a work I will return to again and again), I briefly and foolishly considered writing an essay for this blog entitled “How to Read Maggots, and Why,” before realizing that nothing that I could say could accurately convey the artistic value of Chippendale’s work. Instead, I urge you to experience Maggots for yourself, and allow it to challenge, penetrate, and haunt you, as it has me.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight (Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan, Georges Jeanty, Paul Lee, Andy Owens, Dave Stewart) - This was the monthly comic book I most looked forward to reading new installments of in 2007. If you’re not already a fan of the show, you’re not going to get much out of the comic book, but I’m not going to hold that against it. Creator Joss Whedon has successfully reimagined the series as a wide screen comic book epic, faithful to the themes and characters established on the small screen but taking full advantage of the comics medium to tell compelling adventure stories, blissfully free of the creepy misogyny that plagues too many of American mainstream comics. The book’s first year was divided between the initial “Long Way Home” story arc, written by Whedon himself and now collected in a trade paperback, and Brian K. Vaughan’s “No Future for You,” which featured popular supporting character Faith. The best issue of the series, however, was #5, a self-contained story written by Whedon entitled “The Chain,” which focused almost exclusively on characters newly created for the comic book, and proved that Joss Whedon has every intention of investing this series with all of the warmth, skill, and intelligence that made the television show such an excellent and lasting work of art.

6. New Tales of Old Palomar (Gilbert Hernandez) - This great three issue series, published by Fantagraphic’s “Ignatz” imprint of oversized, deluxe comic book/graphic novel hybrids, proved to be the perfect showcase for the continued evolution of the legendary Gilbert Hernandez. The stories presented here are both a look back at an earlier era of the cartoonist’s lifelong “Palomar/Heartbreak Soup” narrative, as well as a giant step forward in terms of graphic innovation for the cartoonist. Hernandez’s art has never looked better than it does on these oversized pages, and he takes advantage of the format to present big images of the landscape that sometimes dwarf his all too human characters as the struggle to comprehend the David Lynchian strangeness which slowly and eerily permeates their lives.

5. Shortcomings (Adrian Tomine) - While compiling this list, it occurred to me that one of the things that may characterize the comics landscape of 2007 is that there was not a single book that really seemed to herald “book of the year” status upon its publication in the way that, say, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home did last year. Rather, there seemed to be a lot of very good comics coming from all over the place, without any single book really taking prominence. If there was to be such a book this year, however, I think Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings could come close to filling the role. Perhaps because Tomine has been something of a darling of the art comics community for so many years contributed to the fact that Shortcomings did not seem to be met with the same level of enthusiasm as was Fun Home, which was many people’s first exposure to Alison Bechdel, or perhaps Tomine’s straightforward drawing style was not up to the task of dazzling those who’ve grown accustomed to the artistic innovations and surprises of artists like Chris Ware. Whatever the case, let us not forget the extraordinary pleasure to be had in an intelligent story, executed with perfect and beautiful clarity by an undeniably talented and sensitive cartoonist, which is just what this book is. The story concerns a young man, Ben Tanaka, a protagonist who will incite revulsion and sympathy in the reader in more or less equal measure, and his attempts to come to terms with his own Asian-American identity, as well as his strained relationships, romantic and otherwise, with the people in his life. Tomine writes with sharp insight in to the larger cultural issues the book explores, while never losing sight of the human heart that beats, quietly but steadily, at the story’s center.

4. Storeyville (Frank Santoro) - Originally self-published back in 1995 in the form of a tabloid newspaper, this amazing book by Frank Santoro has been republished as an oversized hardcover by PictureBox, one of the most forward-thinking and exciting publishers to come along in recent years. Storeyville follows the journey of Will, an aimless young man who travels from Pittsburg to Montreal in search of his friend and mentor, a man named Rudy with whom he had lost touch years before, and who may or may not want anything to do with Will. The story is a simple one, but emotionally powerful and utterly compelling, thanks in part to the beautiful drawings and astonishing colors, clearly and beautifully presented, along with a new introduction by Chris Ware and a gallery of artwork culled from Santoro’s zine, Sirk. The most astounding thing about the book, for me, is that it was originally published over a decade ago, and still seems somehow ahead of it’s time. I’m grateful that publishers such as PictureBox are taking steps to ensure that the comics industry may one day catch up with artists like Frank Santoro.

3. The Complete Peanuts 1963-1964, The Complete Peanuts 1965-1966 (Charles Schulz) - What is there to say about Peanuts that hasn’t already been said? I’ll just point out that this noble publishing effort is in the midst of the strip’s golden age. It’s hard to imagine this or any other comic strip getting much better than the work presented in these two volumes. That a publisher such as Fantagraphics has committed to reprinting this classic strip in it’s entirety is a gift for which I am grateful. That Charles Schulz lived to create such an extraordinary, heartfelt, perfect work of art in the first place is nothing short of a blessing.

2. Powr Mastrs Vol. 1 - Thanks again to PicureBox, making their third and final appearance on this list (I’ve a feeling they’ll be back next year), for publishing this terrific graphic novel by the amazingly talented Chris Forgues, easily one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had all year. Read my original review for more.

1. Chance in Hell (Gilbert Hernandez) - If I was inclined to name a cartoonist of the year, it would have to be Gilbert Hernandez. The man littered the landscape with excellent comics in 2007, including the better with every issue Speak of the Devil, the aforementioned New Tales of Old Palomar, and of course his work with his equally talented brother Jaime in Love and Rockets. Truly, it was Gilbert’s year, and Chance in Hell is his crowning achievement. The story is that of an orphaned girl named Empress, raised by a loose knit community of the homeless living in a junkyard shantytown, where rape and murder are not uncommon occurrences. Empress is eventually rescued from this life by a kindly man who takes pity on her, but the trauma of her childhood haunts Empress, and it seems as though a normal life may lie forever beyond her grasp. The plot is obviously and deliberately the stuff of B-movies and pulp novels, elevated by Hernandez’s sincere commitment to his characters, respect for his audience’s intelligence, and sheer cartooning brilliance. Empress’ tale is one punctuated with shocking outbursts of horror and violence, and the ending of the story is ambiguous, inviting multiple interpretations and encouraging rereading. I don’t know if this is the best comic published in 2007, but it’s certainly the best I’ve come across, and it’s difficult to imagine a more vital, exciting, evolving, challenging cartoonist than Gilbert Hernandez currently working in American comics.

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