Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Halfway point (more or less) best of 2008

-Couple of quick plugs before getting started:

(1) Alan David Doane is selling a bunch of comics at absolutely ridiculous prices. Looks like a lot of it is gone already, so check it out pretty soon. $20 for all of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is staggeringly low, and I would have bought it myself if I didn't already own it all.

(2) Tucker Stone will be live-blogging his way through the first Uncanny X-Men Omnibus on Saturday. I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the classic Claremont X-Men--I like Dave Cockrum pretty well (more for his work on LSH), but this run of X-Men seems like the root of many things wrong with mainstream superhero comics. So I'm eager to see Tucker sink his teeth into this massive, hernia-inducing volume.

-Everyone who is aware of this blog probably knows by now that I'm greatly interested in various forms of discourse, especially year's best discourse. I like best of the year lists because it gives the writer a chance to look back on a year's worth of comics after several months of contemplation; these are opinions that have been stewing for some time. On the other hand, they're also opinions that are of the moment. Many list-makers will admit that their best-of lists would look quite different if made a year or two, or even a month or two, down the line. I thought it might be useful, then, to make a best of 2008 list at the year's halfway point. Sort of. We're not quite halfway done with 2008, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time to do this at the end of June.

I'm basing my reactions entirely on first reads, with no additional perusal for the sake of this article. When the time comes for me to make a final best of 2008 list, I obviously will re-read the books I'm considering, but I wanted to rely on my early (and alarmingly hazy) impressions for now. I assume that this list will look similar to whatever I come up with in January 2009, but I'm interested to look back then and see how my opinions have changed in the interim. So if these opinions seem a little half-baked, as well they might, please bear in mind the rough nature of this project.

1. Little Nothings by Lewis Trondheim
Still my favorite of 2008 so far; it's going to take one hell of a comic to unseat it. I haven't looked at this in a few months, but I do read Trondheim's French-language Les Petits Riens when it gets updated. Even with my rather anemic understanding of French, you can still kind of pick out the jokes just based on the pacing and cartooning. That tells me a lot about Trondheim's cartooning skills. I'm also struck by just how vibrant these strips are--I don't think Trondheim's art has ever looked better.

2. Paul Goes Fishing by Michael Rabagliati
I was meaning to email Tom Spurgeon to discuss his review of this book, but I guess I'll do it here instead. Tom argues that Paul Goes Fishing is weakened by two things. First, Tom argues, Paul is too likable a character, especially compared to other characters who are denounced as "creeps" or the like. I have no real response to this, but I'll be thinking about it when I re-read Paul Goes Fishing.

Tom's second criticism is that the book "fails to cohere...you'll remember a string of incidents more than an overall arc." I bring this up because it's the exact opposite of what I thought after finishing the book. I felt that Rabagliati effectively played with the theme of nature vs. technology throughout the book, beginning with Paul's objection to the modern hunting/fishing tourism industry. We also see his brother-in-law's alienation from a changing workplace, where his natural talents are held back by a company adopting Japanese "just in time" production strategies. As a result, he increasingly finds fishing, a communion with nature, as his only respite from work. On the lake, Paul's brother-in-law's natural fishing talents eclipse those of his fellow fishers, who rely on more technologically advanced forms of angling. There's a very pro-nature, anti-technology message.

But then the ending seems to reverse course. After Paul and his wife (Lucy, I believe?) twice try unsuccessfully to conceive, they find themselves turning to technology to solve their fertility problems. I couldn't help but think back to Paul's earlier disgust at fish-stocking and bear-bating. Fertility drugs are not "natural," but they do allow Paul and Lucy to find happiness in having a child.

I do wonder if drawing parallels between commercial hunting/fishing and childbearing is somewhat warped; I need to re-read the book to fully flesh out my thoughts here. And it's certainly true that the extended sequence in which a teenage Paul runs away from home doesn't seem to be relevant to anything other than perhaps establishing Paul's thoughts about parenting. I thought it was the weakest part of the book. Maybe there's a thematic connection with an overall parenting theme, just as Paul Moves Out had a marriage/long-term monogamy-related theme. Another thing to consider is that these books have a forward narrative thrust in detailing Paul's life; Rabagliati doesn't always completely succeed in linking this meta-narrative to individual themes in single volumes of the Paul series.

I did think this volume improved on establishing this kind of thematic coherence, even if it Rabagliati might not quite be all the way there yet. As it is, I was impressed enough with the power and skill with which Rabagliati explored these themes. And, of course, Rabagliati is one of the more distinctive craftsmen in comics, working in a style simultaneously timeless and idiosyncratic.

3. Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
I liked Criminal enough to put it somewhere in my top 20 or so for 2007, but there's been an astonishing degree of improvement this year. The larger page count seems to be allowing Brubaker to craft deeper, richer single issues. He's also better taking advantage to the pamphlet format, creating a Rashomon-style narrative which seems to be unfolding in a very subtle way, rewarding multiple re-readings. As Jog and others have pointed out, the storytelling has also taken a great leap forward, particularly in an issue dealing with an alcoholic character suffering from frequent blackouts. As much as I like Brubaker's work on Captain America and Daredevil, we might retrospectively consider the opportunity to write Criminal as the most significant aspect of his relationship with Marvel.

4. Jessica Farm v. 1 by Josh Simmons
I was ambivalent about last year's House. There were a bunch of interesting sequences, but I didn't think Simmons consistently established the sense of place necessary (IMO) for the persistent atmospheric dread he was going for. Jessica Farm, however, does much more to deliver on this promise. Where House felt overly calculated, Jessica Farm feels dangerous, oozing with inexplicable characters and settings, all tied into the title character's murky psychology. There's a lingering dread and mystery which I really appreciated. And I'm happy to say that Simmons' much-publicized production/release schedule for the book isn't just a gimmick--it seems like a good way to ensure that Simmons will resist the urge to go into any single direction for an extended sequence. That hopefully will mean more of more of the weird, loopy pace we see in the first volume. Of course, we'll also get to see how Simmons changes as an artist and writer over the next, uh, forty years. Hopefully I'll still be alive to see the end. For now, Jessica Farm volume one provides plenty of disturbing, exhilarating thrills in its 96 pages.

5. Ganges #2 by Kevin Huizenga
I like the dot com boom/video game subject matter for this issue. I especially appreciated the way that Huizenga depicts the events in the game in more-or-less the same manner as the real-life parts of the book, rather than in the first person perspective which define the actual game(s) Glenn and his colleagues are playing. It serves to break the illusion of immersion one gets when playing an FPS, which is appropriate when paired with the (from our perspective, inevitable) dissolution of Glenn's employer. I'm not so sure what to think of the sequence involving the other players'/employees' tribute to Candypants. It seemed lame and pathetic when I initially read it, the kind of cliched, impotent gesture you see in bad sports movies.* That might have been Huizenga's point, but it didn't seem as cutting as I would have expected. It's something to focus on when I re-read this issue.

*Is that redundant?

6. Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa
I seem to recall reading a review of this (by Chris Mautner, maybe? I try not to read reviews too closely before reading a book myself) which mentioned a major stumble in the last third of the book. I definitely concur; Pedrosa set up the situation well enough, but I thought the resolution was way too external to the established plot and themes of the book. Still, I thought Three Shadows was excellent overall. Pedrosa's composition is as good as anyone actively working in comics--page after page of dazzling birds eye views, beautifully spotted blacks, and curvy city streets. Add in some absolutely stunning (and varied) linework and attractive character design, and it's hard for me to dwell too much on the missteps. Pedrosa is basically the best Disney alum possible, taking the very best aspects of his experience and none of what you might imagine the negatives could be (like overly cutesy design work or unabashed sappiness).*

I'm also impressed that, even with the aforementioned narrative hiccup, I still thought that Three Shadows was a pretty moving commentary on coping with loss. I probably would have placed it somewhere on the list for the incredible art alone, but I'm happy to say that its virtues are not limited to that. Hopefully Pedrosa's subsequent work will see a quick release in North America from here on out.

*I must admit, however, that his page on Lambiek suggests that his working in black and white might have tempered a tendency towards Flight-style over-slickness. Hopefully some more of his work will make its way to these shores so I can figure it out first-hand.

7. Never Been by Stuart Kolakovic
I read Never Been when several blogs linked to it a month or two ago, and it really knocked my socks off. I'm not really well versed in the world of webcomics, but this strikes me as a terrific example of the "infinite canvas" approach which Scott McCloud and his followers often speak of as the overwhelming advantage of digital comics. I particularly appreciated the way that the form of the comic reinforced the theme of seasons passing. Plus the whole thing was terribly entertaining, frequently very funny and always charming. And since it's free, there's no excuse for not reading it before making your own list.

8. Aqua Leung by Mark Andrew Smith and Paul Maybury
It's kind of amazing to think Paul Maybury is still relatively new at the comics game, cause there are some absolutely jaw-dropping storytelling moments here. I'm specifically thinking about Aqua entering the giant monster's mouth and a sequence involving archery. Mark Andrew Smith gives him a lot to work with, with a menagerie of bizarre allies and enemies for the title character to interact with. The trilogy structure leads me to think the next volume will be a bit more dramatic, especially given the hints that Aqua Leung will take a turn toward the dark in volumes yet to come.

9. Haunted by Philippe Dupuy
I found this similar to, but less successful than, Josh Simmons' Jessica Farm. Haunted largely consists of vignettes framed around Dupuy's jogging--presumably the sort of half-formed story ideas which percolate in his mind as he's running. As one would guess with a book of this nature, some sequences work better than others. I'm having a hard time remembering a few of them less than a month after reading Haunted. I also wasn't crazy about Dupuy's sketchy line here. It seems appropriate, at least in theory, for a book of this type. Still, it seemed surprisingly disharmonious with the overall tone--too self-assured, almost self-consciously informal. And it just wasn't aesthetically pleasing, something I never thought I would say about a comic drawn by half the creative team of Monsieur Jean. Still, I did quite like a number of the vignettes (especially one dealing with anthropomorphic forest creatures trying to cope with their friend's misfortune and subsequent alienation), and I sort of expect to like this better on subsequent readings.

10. Achewood by Chris Onstad
I'll probably be putting this on year's best lists until the day when Onstad finally gives it up, unless there's some unexpectedly steep decline in quality in the years ahead. I still think 2006 might have been the peak year for the strip, but I'm liking 2008 better than 2007 so far.

Partially read: Little Vampire by Joann Sfar. I'm actually pretty sure this would make the list if I had finished it. As it stands, I've only read the first story, and I thought it was awfully good. Sfar is actually at the peak of his comedic talents here, and his art is as charming as usual. I'm also impressed that Sfar adds a fairly hefty pinch of tragedy and bitterness to a children's comic. It's an obvious slam dunk for anyone who enjoys cute horror (like, say, Scary Godmother or The Nightmare Before Christmas), especially since I'm having a hard time thinking of anything which succeeds so well at pulling off this sort of thing. Not sure where I would put it on the list based on a first read. Probably somewhere between #4 and #6.

Own but have not read: Rabbi's Cat 2; Dororo v. 1; Hieronymous B., 1997-2007

Do not own but plan on reading: Bottomless Belly Button

Bought from ADD: Kaput and Zosky

Also do not own and plan on reading, but am not sure if I should count it as a 2007 or 2008 book: Tamara Drewe. Any thoughts on this? I think it technically came out in December, but I don't think I remember any North American list-maker including it. A lot will depend on how many people are including it on best of 2007 lists, so we might be revisiting this question in January or February.


Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

I agree with you on Dupuy's line in Haunted. I keep picking up the book, thinking "I should buy this"...and then looking at the artwork inside and coming to my senses.

ADD said...

Thanks for the plug, Dick!

Tucker Stone said...

Thanks for the plug! I hope that the comment section gets lively--i need to find some way to get the word to the hardcore over at the byrne message boards.

I'm having a bit of a tough go of it this year--the usual suspects have been pretty rewarding (i mirror your achewood sentiments exactly) but i always have a tough time when my favorite reads have been the reprints. Ganges 2, that's an "of course," and Klassic Komix Klub as well--but i'm digging for something that'll top out the pleasure of some retro EC war stuff, Thimble Theater, etc. I'll make sure to look into the stuff mentioned here. Thanks for that, as well!

Chris Mautner said...

I'm pretty sure I haven't formally reviewed Three Shadows yet, though I may have written something about it briefly for Blog@.

I do think the book is visually stunning, but I also think it trips up more than once. I liked it quite a bit, but I don't know yet if I'd put it on my top 10 list.

As far as I know, Tamara Drewe hasn't been released in the US yet and I haven't heard yet if Pantheon or anyone else is planning to publish it. Did Madame Bovary sell decently?

You can always import a UK copy on Amazon.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Hmmm. I need to start keeping better track of the things I read, I guess.

I was pretty sure my retailer had a copy of Tamara Drewe, but looking at Amazon I think it might be Gemma Bovary (it's big and blue). I thought I remembered reading that it was released in December, but who knows what I was thinking of.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Update on Tamara Drewe: It's available for preorder. I've never actually read much by Posy Simmonds, so I'm looking forward to checking this out.

Chris Mautner said...

Hmmm, Mariner Books? I'm guessing that Gemma didn't do so hot for Pantheon then. Glad to see someone opted to take a chance on Drewe nonetheless.

You should definitely get your hands on a copy of Gemma. It's well worth your time.

Anonymous said...

You mean... while I finally get around to posting my Best-Of-2007 list you people are already putting together your lists for 2008 ??


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