(This post is NSFW. It's not pornographic or anything, but I wanted to warn you that there are drawings of bare-chested ladies on down the line.)
So it's come to my attention that Diamond has named Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's Joker the OGN of the year. For those curious, something called Dark Knight: The Joker 1:6 Scale Collector Figure won "Toy Product of the Year," (great year for cash-ins on Heath Ledger's likeness!) and Marvel Masterpieces Set 2 Trading Cards won Non-Sports Card Product of the Year. I'm glad to see that Collectable [sic] Statue of the Year was a separate category from Mini Bust of the Year; I'd hate to live in a world where Batman: Black & White Frank Miller Statue and Women of the DCU Series 2 Wonder Woman Bust wouldn't both receive some kind of award.
Even though there can be no doubting the immense prestige of the Diamond Gem awards (just re-read that first paragraph if you have any doubt), I probably wouldn't have made a mental note of any of this had there not been a post on a prominent blog about a month ago suggesting that Joker was the graphic novel of the year, and implying that anyone who doubted this was a stupid elitist who wanted to wrest the term "graphic novel" from the righteous grip of the masses. I had planned to write some kind of snide response, but then it dawned on me that I had not actually read Joker, nor even flipped through its pages. How could I write something suggesting that another writer was painfully ignorant and unfit to make such statements if I myself had not read the book in question? I mean, what if Joker made Maus look like, I don't know, Women of the DCU Series 2 Phantom Lady Bust? Who would look silly then?
So I went to Borders to find out for certain and, well, it's absolutely, positively not even close to being one of the best things I've read this year. Remember that list I made of all the stuff I would consider (or would like to consider) for a year's best list? Every single thing I've read on it is better than Joker, and not by just a little. I don't like Lee Bermejo's art at all, and I guess I'm immune to the charms of Brian Azzarello's writing (especially his dialogue, which I take to be one of his strengths according to his admirers). The whole thing felt like a gritty crime caper squeezed into a pair of ill-fitting spandex tights. That scene with the newsie? The one holding up a newspaper with a headline about the Joker's latest shenanigans, so as to inform the reader that Joker is back and Gotham is terrified? That's just schlocky. Terrible.
I mean, I understand the purpose of Joker is to exploit the most recent Batman movie, to attract consumers who liked Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. (I would think the cover does it a disservice in that it's not clear this is the "movie" Joker, but the thing seems to have sold well enough, so what do I know?) Personally, I found it distracting, a constant reminder that this was a cash grab on DC's part. I mean, it's a smart move, and I don't blame them or anything; this is exactly the sort of thing bloggers rightfully complain about when some company (cough, MARVEL) fails to have a palatable tie-in for the quasi-interested moviegoer. But really, now: does Lee Bermejo have to "cast" Johnny Depp as the Riddler? I'm not sure if Bermejo drew this before or after Michael Caine claimed Depp would be in the next movie; either way, it's just as lame here as when Salvador Larocca or Bryan Hitch do it.
So no, I cannot fathom how anyone could proclaim Joker to be the best graphic novel of the year. It speaks to one of the following: (1) woeful unfamiliarity with the wide, wide array of comics with greater ambitions, and more successful realizations of their ambitions, that were published in 2008; (2) taste so far removed from my understanding of what constitutes worthwhile comics that I question my own grasp of reality; (3) a weird definition of "graphic novel" that excludes every halfway decent comic book-like thing which came out in 2008; or (4) a premium on appreciation for what shoveled the most money into a distributor's coffers in 2008.
As long as I was in my local Borders (which, BTW, looks about as sad as you'd expect given the chain's current woes--those manga shelves are anemic, they're literally debacled; on the other hand, you can't sneeze without tripping over a Watchmen display, or something like that), I figured I might as well check out a few other books which I had heretofore ignored when considering the best of 2008. In a couple of cases, I read copies from the local public library. Briefly:
Too Cool to Be Forgotten
I never cared for Alex Robinson's art. In fact I hated it with a burning passion that has only faded in recent years as I've realized that it's not 1998 anymore, and that Robinson has probably learned a few things over the last decade-and-change. This is, of course, absolutely true; he's actually turned into a good cartoonist. I still don't find his style all that appealing, but he's a confident storyteller and character designer. It's a little annoying when you get the sense that Robinson is holding back a little--there's a sequence on page 94 that suggests that he's capable of more interesting linework than what fills most of Too Cool to Be Forgotten. But he's got a leg up on most working cartoonists.
Overall, I thought it was a pretty okay book until the end, which is about the schmaltziest thing I've read in ages (or it would be if I hadn't read (and reviewed) Never Land recently). It's a really hackneyed sort of ending, though I could see it really speaking to those with raw wounds similar to the protagonist's. But I still found it simplistic, implying that healing psychological wounds is kind of like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Too Cool to Be Forgotten is worth reading, and has as nicely designed a cover as I can remember seeing in 2008, but it's not one of the best comics of the year.
First the cover: I hate photo covers on graphic novels. It makes sense for prose novels because there aren't any pictures inside, so it doesn't really matter what's on the cover as long as it's aesthetically pleasing and encourages purchases. Those are also the goal of most comics covers as well, but the difference is comics do have interior art. Having an interest in what's actually inside a graphic novel or comic, I expect the imagery on the front cover to bear some resemblance to the interior art. There are, of course, exceptions; I wouldn't dare complain about those great Carmine Infantino and Neal Adams covers in the 1960s, for instance. But that's partly because I think they're engaging in a type of visual narrative themselves, which, as Eddie Campbell has argued, is a sort of cousin to comics, and worth our time in and of themselves. (At least I think that's what Campbell has argued, but for the love of god don't go by my memory/interpretation of his words.) The cover of The Alcoholic, however, conveys the impression that the book is ashamed by its guts, almost like it's trying to lure in the fabled casual reader by intimating that it's not really a comic book. It's just like a regular book, see?
At least that's what I think whenever I see a cover like this one. This is at least a shade better than Vertigo's other major OGN for 2008, Incognegro, in that interior artist Dean Haspiel drew the napkin doodle on the cover. On the inside, I thought Haspiel's art was a bit less sharp than I remembered. There are some pages which do shine, like a scene towards the end of the book depicting the narrator (a basically non-veiled stand-in for writer Jonathan Ames) trying heroin for the first time. It's effective for a few reasons--the way the Jonathan's legs form panel gutters for instance--but it's also noteworthy that it's one of the few panels in which Haspiel's Jack Kirby influence is prominent. And that's really Haspiel's strong suit, those sorts of powerful images.
Unfortunately, part of what bugs me about this book is my doubt that Haspiel is the right artist for it. I think he's a fine artist, and his work with Harvey Pekar indicates that he can succeed in a collaborative effort, but I don't think he sounds the right tone here. No matter how mundane his material, Pekar's work is always very much steeped in the traditions of the traditional North American comic book, making Haspiel a good collaborator. Here, though, I think Haspiel's storytelling and cartooning is actually too big, too comic book-y. There's a lot of crying and sadness in this book, the depictions of which almost always involve mouths and eyes agape, actual rivers of tears flowing. Like, you could go white water rafting down those cheeks.
Part of this is Ames' fault as well, as he veers toward the melodramatic. When bad news is delivered over the phone (and it frequently is), characters stare directly into the reader's eyes, shouting NO NO NO in big bold letters. There's certainly a place for melodrama in comics, no question, but Ames and Haspiel seem to lose sight of what kind of book they're making. This is a cancer comic. I don't use that term in an entirely pejorative sense, since there have been many good tragedy-laden memoirs published in the last 10 years--the best probably being Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. But a cancer comic calls for at least some degree of subtlety, as seen in Bechdel's work, or in that of Emmanuel Guibert. (Alan's War isn't really a cancer comic, given the tone and content, but it's a cousin.) The approach here is more like the kind of made-for-TV movie I saw during my childhood. (Not-so-fun fact: CBS aired one such movie about a classmate of mine who shot and killed two guys who were apparently trying to rob his home.)
There are other problems, like my feeling that I didn't really learn much about the roots of Jonathan A.'s problems. Ames seems a little reluctant to discuss the possible influence of his parents and his upbringing, but it's probably hard to get out of your own skin when writing a memoir like this. The Alcoholic isn't a bad comic. It's certainly better than Joker (high praise indeed!) but probably not as good as Too Cool to Be Forgotten. I liked the ending, which actually makes the execution a bit more frustrating--this might have been pretty good if handled differently. Still, it's almost certainly going to be somewhere in the top 10 on the 2008 meta-list, so kudos for DC/Vertigo's publicity department's work in getting this into the right hands.
This comic is seriously okay. If graphic novels were widely available in airport newsstands, the homes of relatives hosting family gatherings, or the waiting rooms of dentists, tire stores, etc., then I would strongly recommend checking out the first volume of Northlanders. It captures the feeling of reading an issue of Quasar or Kull the Conqueror on a long drive with one's parents. I liked it better than Local or Demo.
You'll find the art by Davide Gianfelice and (particularly) colorist Dave McCraig quite good, at least at first. McCraig's rich colors gives it the appearance of stained glass at times, sort of an ironic (but not unpleasant) effect for a comic about Vikings. It also reminds me of Ernie Colon's art in his 1988 OGN Ax (which is pretty interesting, if you ever get the chance to flip through it). As the series wears on, Gianfelice's line art looks more rushed, the lines heavier and less expressive, almost bordering on latter-day Scott McDaniel territory. Brian Wood's writing provides occasional excitement, and lots of colorful language.
It is by no means one of the best comics or graphic novels of 2008, at least based on the first collection of issues. Maybe the single issues published last year improve dramatically; maybe I'll check out the second volume when it comes out later this year to see for sure.