2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Graphic Novels

And so we’ve arrived at this, our final — and, I’m sure for some, most significant — “best of” list of the year, surveying 2017’s top 10 graphic novels. Quick reminder of our “house rules” : these have to be original works designed from the outset for the GN format, not collected works of any sort, which have already been covered on our contemporary and vintage collected editions lists — and, as always, no real “reviews” here (chances are I’ve reviewed most, if not all, of these somewhere or other online already), just quick summaries of why they’re all so fucking awesome. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Vague Tales by Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Long one of the most intriguing, if sporadic, cartoonists around, here Haven constructs a fascinating and surreal overarching story from mostly-silent vignettes featuring barbarians, super-heroes, sexy sorceresses, and monsters that borrow equally from Jack Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Winsor McCay, and Charles Burns — then he throws it all into a blender, cranks it up to “high,” and serves up something utterly unique, yet somehow eerily (hell, vaguely) familiar. We know all the elements at play here, but have never seen them combined in this fashion.

9. Old Ground by Noel Freibert (Koyama Press) – Amorphous, inky black shapes that coagulate, coalesce, dissemble, and reconstitute themselves at both will and random are the primary visual motifs Freibert employs in this bizarre, humorous, at times even touching tale of gentrification looming down upon a haunted graveyard. Nothing is steady or predictable in this world, every new panel an uncertainty waiting to reveal itself to readers and, it seems, artist — and while a fluid and organic work focused on death and decay may sound like a contradiction at first, it all works superbly and there’s a very real sense that this story is almost making itself up as it goes along.

8. Cartoon Clouds by Joseph Remnant (Fantagraphics) – I thought another art school memoir was the last thing needed in both the “alternative” comics scene and, quite frankly, my life, but Remnant hooked me within a few pages with his crisp dialogue, smart characterization, and meticulous linework — and once he got those hooks in, he didn’t let go. A deliriously authentic “coming-of-age” tale that anyone who’s ever been in their early twenties and at loose ends can relate to easily and completely.

7. Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen (Koyama Press) – A post-apocalyptic tale like no other that takes dead aim at any number of targets — environmental degradation, hyper-capitalism, youthful lethargy, mass consumerism, virtual realities — and hits them all with stylish minimalist efficiency, Willumsen’s book demands that you spend time looking at it from multiple angles, then trusts you to make up your own mind. Supremely assured stuff that not only requires you to meet it on its own terms, but challenges you to figure out what those terms even are.

6. Spinning by Tillie Walden (First Second) – The “big breakthrough” from an artist who’s been edging toward one for the past couple of years is here, and Walden’s memoir of her formative years — with a special focus on her figure skating education, hence the title — fully delivers on the promise of her previous works, plus interest.  As confident as it is inventive in its visual narrative, this is a powerfully understated shot across the bow from a 21-year-old cartoonist seizing her moment for all it’s worth. If you want to know who’s going to be making the most talked-about comics for the next decade (or more), look no further.

5. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Bursting with kaleidoscopic imagery and psychedelic imagination, Jacobs’ third graphic novel for Annie Koyama continues his ascent toward the throne of contemporary visual storytellers with more envy-inducing sheer originality than ever. This tale of a washing machine that serves as a gateway for children to a Narnia-esque fantasyland may have universal cautionary themes at its core, but the manner in which they’re conveyed is absolutely singular in nature. Taste the rainbow.

4. Fire!! : The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn+Quarterly) – When a cartoonist sells his fucking house in order to finance his work on a project, you know he’s committed to it, and Bagge’s dedication to an authentic recounting of the life of the most interesting, and criminally overlooked, of the “Harlem Renaissance” authors certainly pays dividends to his readers. Did you ever think that the guy behind Neat Stuff and Hate would become the premier graphic biographer of his generation as the “third act” of his already-storied career? I’ll freely confess that I didn’t see it coming, but now that it’s here, I have to admit that I’m even more interested in seeing who Bagge’s next subject will be than I was in finding out whether Buddy and Lisa were going to kill each other or live happily ever after.

3. Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books) – Long the reigning royalty of diary cartooning, here Bell weaves her daily visual journals into a poignant rumination on the mother-daughter relationship that’s fraught with tension, tumult, toil, and tenderness, the fine line between polite civility and the raw nerves underlying it always mere centimeters away from being crossed, maybe even tripped over. Proof positive that reality is infinitely more complex than anything fiction can dish out.

2. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond (Drawn+Quarterly) – The second of Pond’s “Imperial Cafe” memoirs sees the dark storm clouds of the 1980s gathering over the heads of her ensemble (out)cast(s), but never fear — the whimsy, the moxie, and the heart we first saw from everyone in Over Easy haven’t gone anywhere — and deep reserves of each are going to be needed in order to get through all that’s coming. Sooner or later life takes us all in different directions, but letting go of people, places, and even stages of existence is never easy, is it? And while Pond’s book may be about coming to terms with endings we don’t want to see happen, we should all be damn glad that she’s still working through the implications of this particular phase of her life some 30 years later — heck, by the time this book is over, you won’t be ready to say good-bye to it any more than she is/was. Most comics are lousy, plenty of comics are good, a few comics are great — but this comic? This one’s pure magic.

1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) – Most cartoonists show up on the scene with a pretty steep “learning curve” ahead of them, and that’s all well, good, and to be expected — but once in a great while lightning strikes and someone arrives “fully formed.” Never, though, have I seen anyone do what Emil Ferris has done here — break into this still-maligned medium of ours with a work that’s light-years ahead of what pretty much anyone and everyone else is doing. By now you’ve read all the raves about her book and seen it atop more or less everyone’s “best of the year” lists — but, if anything, this sprawling and multi-layered tale that’s part youthful memoir, part mystery, part family drama, part Chicago history, and part love letter to Universal’s “Monster Era” has so far been underappreciated for all that it both represents and is. Consider : 15 years ago the West Nile Virus left Ferris unemployed, broke, raising a child on her own, and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Today, she’s the author of the best and most important graphic novel of the 21st century (at least to date) — and she drew it entirely with Bic and Flair pens. Permission to be in awe? Fully granted.

And on that note — we’re done here. Go forth and read ye some great comics.



The Aching Familiarity Of The Unknown : Connor Willumsen’s “Anti-Gone”

We’ve seen so much of this before, in fiction and fact : a post-apocalyptic future Earth, mostly submerged underwater by means of some unspecified climate-change-induced catastrophe, has descended into an equally-unspecified form of totalitarianism. Waterworld meets 1984, right?

A “slacker” couple, Spyda and Lynxa, while away the hours/days/weeks/years of their lives on a refurbished sailboat-cum-living-room; he’s a tattooed, visor-wearing, hopeless nostalgia-junkie who mostly speaks in movie quotes: reading, rather than film, appears to be her reality-exit of choice. Remind you of any dead-end couples you might have gone to college with — or may even know now?

And yet everything in Montreal-based cartoonist Connor Willumsen’s new Koyama Press graphic novel, Anti-Gone , is distinctly and unquestionably foreign, as well, entirely outside our experience, whether real or recieved : the economy of this world, rather than being in tatters, appears to be chugging along without a hitch; drugs remain a popular pastime for the youth set, but the drugs of the future are designed to enhance the feeling of being in the past; super-hero flicks are still making the rounds, proving this largely-execrable genre will probably survive anything, yet the one to which out two protagonists are making their way (hey! They’ve got free passes!) is a decidedly existential example of capes-n’-tights escapism.

And “escapism,” as well as its before-and-after-effects, seems to be the central theme of this entire book in so many ways — the desperate need for it in the face of near-insurmountable circumstance, and the addiction to it that leads to, even presages, the sort of ambivalence/antipathy that inevitably results in calamity. Spyda and Lynxa, after all, aren’t doing anything most people their age wouldn’t do in their situation — score and ingest drugs, have sex, and find creative ways to waste time. But will anything change as long as this is all anybody wants to do?

Willumsen’s narrative often seems to reflect the nonchalance of his central characters, maybe even their utter lack of both concern and/or information : large throngs of protesters are upset about something, but we don’t know what and it’s not even a terribly central concern to events; on the other side, psychotic cops meet this (sorry to invoke an overused term, but) resistance with lethal force, but whose specific authority they are acting with the imprimatur of is every bit as vague. It’s like everything is sinking into a watery grave and the only response to it we’re directly exposed to is — hey, let’s have as much fun as we can while we’re here! Even if the pursuit of that fun requires a fair amount of — gasp! — effort.

And, hey, while we’re on the subject of water, vast and open expanses of it — mostly signified by means of overwhelming, near-metallic grayness — is as constant a feature in this story as you’d expect given the synopsis provided a minute ago, and while the creatures that inhabit it are recognizable enough in the abstract, they also aren’t. There’s something “off” about all of this, as if it isn’t real, or at least not fully formed. Which may, in fact, be the case with this entire “reality,” since the question of how much of this seemingly-endless dystopian future is actually a VR construct being “experienced” in the here and now remains a very deliberate mystery throughout — again, underscoring the same core concerns already belabored (if that’s even the term we want to use since, theoretically at any rate, I churn out these reviews for fun) upon.

To be sure, ambiguity this deliberate and all-consuming isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, and if I said I “understood” what was happening in every panel, even on every page, on anything other than some sort of intuitive level — even after two full readings and a good dozen or so browsings mainly concentrated on interpreting the art — I’d be lying. The stylized minimalism of these proceedings is established at the outset with the cover, so it’s not like the reader can claim he or she didn’t know what they were getting into, but even still — don’t try to absorb this thing in a hurry, despite the fact that “reading” it is a fairly quick process. Plenty of this shit takes time to seep in.

All of which is more than fine with this self-appointed critic. “I’m as good as you want me to be” is a line in the book that really sticks (even though it’s spoken by a side character — specifically a drug dealer), and in many ways it applies not just to him, but to Spyda and Lynxa, and to Anti-Gone as a whole. Odds are better than good that it’ll only take you a couple of minutes to “get” the title, and probably not much longer to figure out its relation to events within — but deciphering those events in their fullness? That’s gonna tax your (not inconsiderable, I’m sure) mental faculties quite a bit more. Willumsen’s book, then, in a very real sense, returns how much you’re willing to invest in it, and ends up being “as good as you want it to be.” I wanted it to be really effing good — and guess what? It is.