Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Best comics of 2007


So here it is. As you'll soon see, I'm actually ranking my ten favorite comics of 2007. This seemed like trend-bucking until Jog and Sean Collins did the same thing (well, Sean did two top 15 lists, but they were ranked). I hold some reservations about doing it myself because my tastes seem to fluctuate wildly. I might look back on this list with no small amount of regret before too many months have passed. So get ready for a revamped version of this list every other month, starting in March!

Despite my apprehension about ranking my favorites for 2007, I'm even less inclined to make an unranked, ultra-inclusive list of everything I sort of liked from 2007. I like to actually make an argument (not the same thing as starting an argument) when I do stuff like this. Please note, however, that the other sections of this list are not in any particular order. I don't mind taking the effort to rank my ten favorite comics of 2007, but I don't want to try to rank the top 30. I have my limits.

One last thing: I never got around to reading Exit Wounds. I thought I'd be able to pick up a copy in the last two weeks of the year, but it just hasn't worked out that way. When I finally get around to reading it, I'll let you know if it should have been on this list.


1. Sammy the Mouse #1 by Zak Sally

One of the best crafted comics I read all year--great dialogue and timing. It's that great characterization that makes this work, cause otherwise it would be a huge mess. The main characters are, more or less, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. They're incredibly shoddy versions of these characters though--alcoholic, prone to seizures, possibly schizophrenic. They go about in a bleak, nightmarish world, colored in scribbly gray and blue lines (more on this choice here), filled with lopsided houses built on cliffsides and bars in the shape of giant human babies (with anatomically correct interiors). They binge, purge, and repeat.

One might be tempted to call this an existential nightmare, but it's not so simple. Sammy (the Mickey analogue) clings to his Sisyphean routine even as other characters--including a mysterious disembodied voice--offer him exits from it. This might be because Puppy (Sally's Goofy stand-in) suffers for his attempts to break the monotony of his life. He invents things, possibly at the prodding of the same disembodied voice which speaks to Sammy, but he's having a seizure in a liquor store when he's first introduced. The third character, HG Feekes (Donald Duck, more or less) is probably the stablest of the three, any potential self-loathing tendencies viciously externalized against the other characters in the book.

It's unclear exactly what, if anything, any of that has to do with the Disney allusions. And there are also cryptic panels that seem to take place in the real world (or something more closely resembling the real world), with repetition of some of the dialogue from earlier in the book. Plus there's a rather open ending. So no, this isn't a completed piece of work by any means, but it's the comic I've re-read and thought about the most times this year. There's something about Sammy the Mouse which affected me in a very visceral way, and I'd be completely dishonest if I said this wasn't my favorite comic of the year. I suspect more people will come around to my way of thinking as more issues are released. In the meantime, you'll probably agree that, at the very least, it's a very good comic.

2. Notes for a War Story by Gipi

Possibly the most beautiful comic released in North America in 2007, Notes for a War Story is a haunting and provocative story about young men and their attraction to violence. But it's also about how class can still divide long after it's divorced from any socioeconomic context. Gipi enshrouds his sharp, sneering young men in murky green washes, making the stylistic jump at the end of the book all the more shocking. Gipi takes full advantage of the comics medium, depicting the aged Giuliano as physically similar to the hard men he rejected in his youth. A wonderful book, alternating between explosive and subtle passages. How on earth did we ever get by before First Second?

3. Phoenix: Sun by Osamu Tezuka

It's wonderful that we live in a time when so much of Tezuka's body of work is so readily available in English, and when interest is high enough in these books to make one optimistic about the possibility of even more translated editions. Phoenix predates the current wave of Tezuka releases, so the hype might not be commensurate with the quality. Which is really too bad, because this is Tezuka at his peak. Read my review for more of my thoughts.

4. Delphine #2 by Richard Sala

Richard Sala is one of those cartoonists who seems to be making comics especially for me. Dense yet playful mysteries full of winding staircases, hidden passages, bizarre villains, and weird artifacts, all drawn with a wonderfully expressive line--I love this stuff. I can't get enough. What makes Delphine such a treat is that Sala is branching out while retaining the essence of what makes his comics so compulsively readable. Delphine is much slower paced than the archetypical Sala comic, with larger panels, a greater number of quiet moments, and longer scenes. The art still retains Sala's distinctive linework, but is complemented by sepia washes that add to the more restrained pace. This departure from his standard storytelling fits the story, which takes place in an unnamed European country. It's pastoral Sala, and it works better than I'd ever have expected. In fact, it's his best work since The Chuckling Whatsit.

5. Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, vol. 1-3 by Jack Kirby and others

I'm a little loath to include this new series of reprints, since Kirby's Fourth World material has been reprinted several times in numerous formats. But I can't in good conscience put this any lower. These are absolutely gorgeous volumes, from the incredible covers (not the dust jackets, but what's beneath) to the paper stock. Better yet, the sequencing of the stories in published order has given them a new power. You can see Kirby's deft world building, always present yet always subservient to his desire to entertain his readers. And maybe I'm just in a different state of mind 10 years after I last read these stories, but the Fourth World seems so much more vibrant in this format. The Paranoid Pill, Happyland, the Glory Boat, the Hairies--these are some of the best ideas in the history of comics, each one better than the last. It's enough to make me reconsider whether or not this is actually Kirby's best work. I can't recommend these books highly enough.

6. Town Boy by Lat

Those who think they hate all autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) comics might experience a change of heart after reading this book. There's a very casual narrative flow to Town Boy, but mostly it's a collection of blackout gags set in the Malaysia of Lat's youth. The gags all work--one towards the end involving the protagonist on a date is one of the best I've ever read--but the real pleasure comes from Lat's detailed set pieces. It's a rare comic that creates such an overwhelming sense of place in such a low-key, charming manner. Again, it's great to have these sorts of comics available in the US--and in chain bookstores at that! What an age we live in, etc.

7. George Sprott by Seth

There are few things I find more sadly fascinating than the forgotten history of mundane life. This comic is steeped in it. Read my review.

8. Alias the Cat by Kim Deitch

Deitch is one of the real treasures of comics, someone who does brilliant work that wouldn't work in any other medium. With each passing year, it's easier to argue that Deitch is the greatest cartoonist of his generation--no mean feat, considering who's in that generation! He's certainly aged the better than any of his contemporaries. That's even more remarkable considering that Deitch has been mining the same lode for the last couple of decades. This is more of what we've come to expect from him--a look at the seedy underbelly of the early 20th century entertainment industry, with the usual Deitchian flourishes (secret histories, mysterious artifacts, kinky fetishes, Waldo,). Compare this to the work collected in last year's Shadowland, and you'll see that Deitch has only grown sharper and funnier with age.

9. Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian

Maybe I'm wrong, but this seemed to have a lot of buzz when it was first released, then promptly ignored thereafter (except by Jog, who posted this review in the interim between my writing this entry and posting it). I think that's obviously a shame. Malkasian's art is absolutely lovely--filled with curving, collapsing architecture rendered in sepia colored pencils. It's quite reminiscent of Sammy the Mouse, except with a completely different message. While Sally's characters cling to their purgatorial binging and purging, Malkasian delivers a positive message about the ephemeral nature of life. I guess I probably should worry that I found Sally's bleak vision more appealing.

10. Powr Mastrs volume 1 by CF

I've said a lot about this comic. I won't try to add anything else here, except that after reading it you kind of think, "Of course! Why didn't anyone else do this kind of thing before?"


Achewood by Chris Onstad

Am I alone in thinking this strip was a little better in 2006? That still means that Achewood is better than nearly everything else being published in any format by a really large margin. This isn't merely the standard by which all other webcomics are (totally unfairly) judged, but the standard by which all humor comics are (totally unfairly) judged.

Multiple Warheads #1 by Brandon Graham

I don't have any illustration for this book because (don't laugh) I'm not sure where my copy is. I'm sure it will turn up eventually. In the meantime, there are a couple of good images in this review.

Dan Nadel recently wrote that CF and Brian Chippendale are working in the same spirit as "underground fantasy" cartoonists of the 70s. I don't know that Nadel would agree, but that's more or less what I thought of when I read Multiple Warheads. Graham works in a much more conventional style than the Ft. Thunder alums (both in terms of writing and art), but the spirit seems to be the same--he takes the sf/fantasy elements of his work seriously (though not humorlessly), and he doesn't waste a lot of time with exposition. The results are pretty wonderful, and remind me that I still need to track down King City.

Tekkon Kinkreet by Taiyo Matsumoto

If you were to make a Venn diagram of Multiple Warheads, some of the parts which don't overlap with Powr Mastrs would overlap with Tekkon Kinkreet. Where Graham's psychedelic landscapes seem to be channeling Rick Griffin, Matsumoto's inky puddles are more indebted to Jose Munoz. I'm not sure that I would have guessed that the European influenced manga would look so good, but it seems pretty obvious now. In fact, if I were a fictional character with so much money I could swim in it, I'd create an exchange program to send young mangaka to Europe, where they would be immersed in the works of Munoz, Tardi, Pratt, and Moebius. Tekkon Kinkreet would be worth reading if its virtues were limited to its arresting images, but there's a pretty ambitious story to go along with all the lovely pictures of Black and White beating Yakuza with heavy blunt objects. One of the great entertainment values of 2007.

The Blot by Tom Neely

Tom Neely is the obvious choice for best new talent of 2007. This is the kind of debut that blindsides people--confident, complex, extremely well-developed. One of the most interesting things about The Blot (at least to me) was the disconnect between the style of art and the narrative. Neely is working in a style reminiscent of some of the greatest storytellers in comics history in the service of a story that relies on symbol more than plot. I'm eager to see more of his work, doubly so if it's in color (his paintings are pretty stunning).

New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama

I was going to beg off and refer you to Jog's review, since talking about this kind of material makes my tongue feel like a potato. Or my fingers, since I'm typing this. But I'm not sure we were struck by the same things in this book. I'm apparently in the minority who prefers the engineering in New Engineering. Maybe it's my own concerns--I tend to think of the future of humanity in post-human kind of ways. Not like Grant Morrison's X-Men, but like all organic material has been eliminated, and the future of Earth lying in synthetic intelligence. In that sense, this seems almost like a hopeful, if humorous comic; those fake plastic mountains kind of like our monstrous public buildings based on Classical architecture. I'm pretty sure none of that is what Yokoyama was going for, but it's my lasting impression. The fight scenes are also pretty mind-blowing, I should add.

Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

The thing that distinguishes Criminal from other crime comics available in the early 21st century is the quality of craft. Brubaker's script is subtle yet evocative, and Phillips is doing career best work. The sequence in issue 10 with the alternating blue and red lights was ingenious (extra credit to colorist Val Staples for pulling it off). It's not going to change your world (unless you've never read any noir), but the execution is impeccable.

Dragon Head by Minetaro Mochizuki

I thought this series was running out of steam, but then I read the seventh volume (the one with the long helicopter flying sequence). Absolutely chilling. Very few comics combine this kind of "widescreen" action with such a sophisticated sense of atmosphere. It's a disaster movie for adults. In, uh, comics form.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Breezy yet affecting, with delightful art marked by charming cartooning and vibrant colors. This is exactly the kind of book that will convince a certain type of skeptic that comics are capable of greater versatility and subtlety than one might think.

Bookhunter by Jason Shiga

One of the most entertaining books of the year, especially for those nostalgic for the libraries of their youth. I'm not sure that I bought into the 70s cop show parody aspect of the work as much as others--could be lack of familiarity with the source material--but that didn't stop me from enjoying this book on its own merits. I'm betting that Jason Shiga will eventually write/draw something that will turn the comics medium on its ear. This isn't that book, but it's a very good book.

Storeyville by Frank Santoro

I surely didn't read this when it came out, so I'm very grateful for the new Picturebox edition. In his introduction to the book, Chris Ware hits on the thing which most stands out for me about Storeyville--the way that Santoro's art changes with protagonist Will's emotional/mental state. This all leads to the final scene, where Santoro starts working in these gorgeous diagonal compositions, lines going everywhere as Will is confronted with a situation he never envisioned. I feel a little regret at writing this list only a week after reading this--I kind of think that, upon further reflection, I might consider this one of the two or three best books of 2007.

At Loose Ends by Lewis Trondheim

This is the multi-part autobiographical story serialized in MOME over the last year or so. I'm not sure that will hold the same interest for people less interested in Trondheim's career, but I can't deny its appeal to me. I wonder if Trondheim didn't sacrifice a little depth in exchange for greater immediacy, though. All that nature drawing sort of underscores the theme of trying to retain the sheer pleasure of drawing, but that seems a little too easy. But then again, Trondheim's conclusions are ambiguous, so maybe I should see these drawings as an act of desperation. In any event, it's the best meta-type comic story I read all year.

While we're on the subject of MOME, I'll briefly note that the journal improved dramatically in the course of the three issues featuring Trondheim's serial. Elanor Davis, Emile Bravo, and Tom Kaczynski are much more attuned to my sensibilities than most of the original contributors. Plus Joe Kimball is a promising young talent, and Al Columbia is still Al Columbia. I haven't read the latest two issues, but I'm looking forward to doing so.

Speak of the Devil by Gilbert Hernandez

I have to confess--I'm a lapsed Love and Rockets fan. Not because I lost interest in Los Bros Herndandez in particular, but because I lost interest in/time for comics in general earlier this decade. And when I came back, there was a whole lot of Los Bros to catch up on. It wasn't so much as to seem overwhelming, but with so many other enticing comics to read it was easy to put off catching up. Lucky for me, Speak of the Devil and Chance in Hell provided an opportunity to check out Gilbert's recent work without having to brush up on my history of Palomar. Of the two, I greatly prefer Speak of the Devil. It's partly the imagery (the protagonist lurking in the shadows, wearing a mask) and partly the storytelling (many wordless scenes depicting the aforementioned actions). It's also a refreshing twist on the "dark secrets of suburbia" theme. Which is good to see, cause I've lived all my life either in rural or urban environs and have always found the idea of suburban living a little creepy. Which, in turn, is probably one of the reasons I've found the first half of Speak of the Devil especially compelling. Oh, and one more thing: this totally rekindled my love of Gilbert Hernandez' work, and I'm now working on getting caught up with the last 7-8 years of Love and Rockets.

Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes

In all fairness, this is probably as good or better than anything in my top 10. I just wanted to make room for some other comics on the list, and Mister Wonderful's incompleteness is good enough justification for doing that. Still, it's so good that I feel somewhat guilty about omitting it anyway, but I remind myself of two things: (1) It's not like Dan Clowes especially needs my praise at this (or any) point in his career, and (2) I really expect this to seem like a very different story once I've finished reading it. We'll see.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks; edited by Paul Karasik

Now this book, more than any other, really characterizes the current market for comics reprints. Could you imagine such a thing existing ten years ago? I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets is probably the archival project of the year, in that (a) these comics were not readily available in any format other than their original printings, and (b) this is an essential book for any comics library. Given its success, hopefully we'll see more volumes collecting work of a similar spirit from comics' shadowy past.


Reptilia by Kazuo Umezu

Seems to be getting some lukewarm reactions, but I enjoyed it more than anything else I've read by Umezu. I think it's because there's something so viscerally disturbing about the Snake Lady (and this isn't a personal phobia, cause I like real-life snakes just fine). Kind of like Uzumaki, where one's reaction is more disgust than terror. Good stuff, if kind of slight.

Grotesque #1 by Sergio Ponchione

Beautifully drawn light Lynchian fantasy. Three men all prepare themselves to journey into the physical manifestation of their imaginations, which may be the same place for all three. Or else it's three very similar imaginary places--it's a little hard to tell yet. For now, it's a fun set of vignettes, with a few really clever, moody set pieces. I've got pretty high hopes for this series.

The Order by Matt Fraction, Barry Kitson, and others

I guess this was my favorite non-reprint superhero comic of 2007. It's either this or Captain America, and I really thought The Order broke more new ground. The central concept (real life heroes become superheroes) sounds hackneyed; in the hands of a less talented writer, it could be pretty schmaltzy and pandering. But Fraction takes the idea in unexpected directions by introducing an element of wish fulfillment and grounding the series firmly in Southern California culture and politics. I would like to see the mysterious government agency subplot actually link up to these themes in 2008; if it does, this will surely be one of the best superhero comics of the decade.

Thingpart by Joe Sayers

Some will find Thingpart very reminiscent of Perry Bible Fellowship. Which is fair, because it is--there's a similar rhythm to each strip, and a very similar juxtaposition of innocence and cruelty. I find Thingpart funnier however--I think it's partly the greater visual consistency and partly the somewhat cuter/sweeter nature of the humor. But mostly it's the fact that Sayers maintains a rather static "camera" throughout the proceedings, a style I find more conducive to this type of humor. Or maybe I've just been conditioned by years of reading crappy, poorly drawn newspaper strips to see that as the only way to deliver humor in 3-4 panel form. Regardless of my own deficiencies as a comics reader, Thingpart is a very funny strip with very little in common with Cathy or the like.


The Arrival by Shaun Tan
I've thought about picking it up on several occasions, but the highly realistic pencil art is a turnoff. I'd like to read it, but I'm hesitant to spend money on it.

The Ice Wanderer by Jiro Tanigushi
I think I missed this at the store. Will try to get a copy eventually.

Moomin by Tove Jansson
I just haven't picked up any of these collections yet. I fully intend to do so at some point in the future.

Exit Wounds by Rutu Mordan
I've been trying to get a copy, honest!

Cromartie High School
I'm behind, but I'm sure this is still the funniest comic available that isn't drawn by Michael Kupperman (speaking of whom, isn't it about time for a new issue of Tales Designed to Thrizzle?).

Dr. Slump
I didn't start reading this until late last year, and I've still got a lot of catching up to do.

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds
Is this available in America yet?

Popeye vol. 2 by EC Segar
I think this is going to be a late-arriving Christmas present. I'm sure that it's as good as the first volume, which I still haven't finished reading because I basically suck.

King City by Brandon Graham
I would totally own this if I could find a copy.

Service Industry by T. Edward Bak
Reich by Elijah Brubaker
Two comics that I'll eventually order. I'm not made of money!

...And I guess that's it. I know there was a lot of "I'm so glad work like this is being published in America" throughout the piece, but that's really how I feel. 2007 was a great year for comics; let's hope that 2008 will be even better. I fully expect it will be.


Chris Mautner said...

I'm reasonably sure Tamara Drewe is not yet available in the U.S.

Paul Karasik said...

Thanks for the kind words about my book, "I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks" and glad that it (sort of) made your Best of the Year list.

Whodathunk that these truly twisted tales would be such a hit? Not me!

Readers unfamiliar with Hanks’ work may want to slide over to the BONUS page of my website for a slideshow of a full length Fantomah story that does NOT appear in the book:

Anonymous said...

Ah geez.

I only read two of the things on your top ten list. (Three, if you count the Kirby books which I've read in Greyscale.)

And I thought I was doin' pretty good this year.

Still, I really like these things, and I 'specially dug the format here.

I like ANYTHING in list form, mind. And it's cool to know what I should be looking for.

Anonymous said...

Kirby's vision was more fully realized at DC than Marvel, no contest. FOURTH WORLD is absolutely his definitive work, and I'd call it his greatest.

I enjoyed the premiere volume of the UMBRELLA ACADEMY more than any other new superhero book this year. Enormously entertaining and it's strange and heady enough to distinguish it from the pack. UA is certainly above and beyond any new material from Marvel or DC in 2007, both in concept and in execution (the art is amazing).

throughsilver said...

Is it just me, or does that Dragon Head artwork remind anyone of early Katsuhiro Otomo?

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

I haven't read any Otomo in a while (I can't even find my copy of Domu), but Mochizuki's maybe a bit more angular--his people are a little less vibrant than Otomo's. Of course, I selected a page with limited human presence, so that's not exactly apparent. I can see where you're coming from, though.

Did you check out the best of everything except comics post, Throughsilver?

throughsilver said...

I haven't, but I've been meaning to check your blog more regularly.

Sun Flower said...

God, this has to be my favorite webcomic right now (or maybe Dresden codak). My favorite is either the one with the whales discussing whether they should evolve and leave the ocean, or the one with the peanut butter and jelly about to consumate their marriage. They're all wonderful, really.
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