2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary)

Let’s keep plugging away here, shall we? This time around on out year-end wrap we’re looking at the top 10 collected editions of 2017, with a slight change to my previously-announced methodology : rather than placing everything “Modern Age” (roughly the 1980s) and beyond in this category, I’ve narrowed it to collections of comics published post-2000, so that everything being referred to as “contemporary” at least comes from, ya know, this century. Apart from that, however, the category remains a fairly broad one : TPB or hardcover collections of single issues, webcomics collections, diary comics collections, and anthologies all fall into what I consider to be “collected editions” — in other words, a lot of this stuff is more or less brand new, and many critics who don’t share my OCD affliction might even call some of these “graphic novels.” I’m not gonna do it that way, though, because my list of the top 10 graphic novels is going to be just that : original graphic novels constructed from the outset to be published as a single volume.

That’s it for the particulars, then, apart from a reminder that there may be a couple of tail-end-2016 releases that make their way onto these lists because they hit shops too late to be properly reviewed by yours truly last year, and that each book will be summarized quickly — these are not proper “reviews” or anything of the sort. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – DeForge revealed a more whimsical and even, dare I say it, “fun” side in these single-page webcomics, and they read very cohesively as a collection. Absurdist humor, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a decidedly revisionist take on “funny animals” combine to form a typically singular (there’s a contradiction for you) DeForge reading experience.

9. Sunburning by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press) – Roberts’ autobio webcomics are a stark look at life’s challenges and its subtle beauty and they balance the joys and drudgeries of parenting with a quiet and unassuming honesty that’s entirely un-sentimental, but not in any way clinical. In addition, her simple-but-detailed illustration draws the eye in to notice every little detail, and there are a lot of details to notice. It’s always a pleasure to see her work collected in print, and this is her strongest book yet.

8. A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations by Gabby Schulz (Phase Eight Publishing) – If you know Schulz, you know that this collection of his diary comics won’t be an “easy” read — he doesn’t spell out the particulars of his life with any great specificity, but you can see his mental, physical, and financial deterioration playing out before your eyes in a manner as relentless as it is nonchalant. So, yeah, this is no “easy” read — but it’s a compelling and engrossing one, no doubt about it.

7. Band For Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics) – These chronicles of a multi-species punk band in a sci-fi future Chicago sure seem an awful lot like those of people I knew in my 20s who were in bands, so I guess that means the themes here are timeless, indeed. And Davison herself reflects the never-say-die ethos of her protagonists : after fleeing Vice’s digital sweatshop, she continued posting these strips on her Tumblr page, and finally saw them through to completion in this magnificent hardback collection.

6. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn+Quarterly) – Breathtaking illustration, ethereal themes, and naturalistic visual storytelling combine to make this collection of Tamaki’s strips a supremely memorable read, one that analyzes her female progatonists’ complex relationships with themselves, their bodies, their hopes and fears, and their self-image with disarming candor and incredible grace. Stirring, soul-searing stuff.

5. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press) – This travelogue composed of diary strips and single illustrations documenting Davis’ bicycle trip from her parents’ home in Arizona to her adoptive hometown of Athens, Ga. doesn’t chain itself to anything like a traditional narrative framework, instead providing an interpretive, experiential look at a journey every bit as philosophical, even spiritual, as it is physical. Another resoundingly resonant work from someone making a very strong case to be considered the cartoonist of her generation.

4. Mirror Mirror II , edited by Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (2dcloud) – The second volume of 2dcloud’s annual(-ish) anthology has a loose “horror” theme at its core, buy beyond that editors Gfrorer and Collins really do give their contributors free reign to explore the subject in wide-open, entirely unique ways. And what a group of contributors they’ve got! A unique mix of folks we see a lot of working in other genres (Simon Hanselmann, Josh Simmons), folks whose work typically does tend toward the horrific (Gfrorer, Noel Freibert, Clive Barker — yes, really!), and folks we just plain don’t get to see anywhere near enough of these days (Al Columbia, Renee French, Dame Darcy, Carol Swain, Nicole Claveloux), all presented in the kind of uncompromisingly high-quality package we’ve come to expect from this premier “boutique” art-comics publisher. This is a book overflowing with both dark beauty and artistic integrity.

3. Providence Acts Two And Three by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – I’ve raved enough about this series over the last couple of years — but goddamn, it’s so good that I almost feel as if I’ve undersold it. Suffice to say, Moore and Burrows have created what  is undoubtedly the smartest, most richly-detailed, most multi-layered horror comic in history. Act Two collects issues 5-8, Act Three finishes the story off with issues 9-12.

2. True Swamp Book 2: Anywhere But In — by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books) – Finally collecting Lewis’ two “bumper-sized” issues from the early “aughts,” his second go-round with the foul-mouthed (but hyper-intelligent) Lenny the Frog and his bog-dwelling friends is, if anything, even more funny, smart, and endearing than the first, and far more visually accomplished and experimental. Matching the wit and charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with a distinct underground sensibility, there has simply never been another comic like True Swamp — and, chances are, there never will be again. I believe “sublime” is the word we’re looking for.

1. Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn by Gerald Jablonski (Fantagraphics Underground) – At last presented in the oversized format that these dense, information-packed (both visually and verbally) strips pretty much demand, this near-as-we’re-ever-likely-to-get-to-definitive collection of Jablonski’s work showcases his singular genius in a manner his small-but-dedicated legion of fans could only have dreamed of until it finally happened. Utterly unlike any other comics ever even conceived of — much less done — by anyone else, this is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself where the rules of what “should” or “shouldn’t” work not only don’t apply, but simply don’t matter. Jablonski reigns supreme in his kingdom of one.

Okay, looks like that’ll do it! Again, this list seemed like a daunting thing to put together until I started doing it, and then it all came together almost on its own, as if it were just being channeled through me. Freaky, huh?

Next up : my picks for the top 10 collections of vintage (as in, pre-2000) comics released in 2017. Hope to see you back here in a couple of days for that one!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/15/2017 – 10/21/2017

Plenty to look at this week, so let’s dive right in —

Berserker #1 is a recent sci-fi anthology from Breakdown Press in the UK that seems to be aiming to combine the sensibilities of 2000 A.D. with those of American “alternative comix.” Edited by Tom Oldham and Jamie Sutcliffe, it’s an impressive 64-page volume with a high-gloss cover that’s printed on heavy paper stock and is roughly evenly split between comics and text pieces. On the comics front, far and away the strongest strip is Anya Davidson’s “The Night Timers In : No Rest For The Wicked,” the first installment of a topical and dynamic long-form series that successfully splits its attention between genre action and “real-world” social and economic concerns, while Jon Chandler (with colorist Sarah-Louise Barbett) contributes an interesting “virtual reality” conversation strip that comes up a bit short in terms of its execution in “Sword Of Sorcery,”, Lane Milburn’s “The Gig” serves up a nicely-illustrated and just-as-nicely scripted tale of a video streamer who’s working freelance for a decidedly unsavory content provider, Hardeep Pandal’s “Bang Bros” is batshit crazy in the best possible way (a pacifier-headed entity in a death race to the top of the Statue of Liberty? Wow!), “Odnal’s Pral” by Lando goes the wordless route as it delineates a surrealistic and highly imaginative sequence that demands the context that future chapters will hopefully provide, and Benjamin Marra’s “Drug Destroyers!” — well, it does what Marra pretty much always does, only far less successfully. Props to Leon Sadler for his interesting watercolor work on the strip, though.

Whew! As far as the text articles go, my favorite was Sutcliffe’s overview of Alan Jefferson’s amateur sci-fi electronic music opus “Galactic Nightmare,” complete with several previously-unpublished concept illustrations, but Sammy Harkham’s interview with visionary illustrator Robert Beatty ranks right up there, too, as does Phil Serfaty’s conversation with techno-biological artist Joey Holder. Adham Faramawy’s overview of Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy of novels is interesting, if foreign territory for me, and Peter Bebergal’s account of golems and his own attempt to create one has really gotta be read to be believed.

All in all a fascinating package sent my way courtesy of the aformentioned Ms. Davidson (thanks so much, Anya!) whose generosity, I assure you, didn’t sway my view in any way. I hope we’ll be seeing issue two before long here.

I wasn’t as impressed with Koyama Press’ collected edition of Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy mini-comics as I gather I’m meant to be, given the absolutely glowing notices it’s received elsewhere, but that may be down to pure economics. As individual publications selling for a buck or two (or whatever) apiece, Foster-Dimino’s clean, smart, visually literate illustrations alone would be enough to justify the price, but for $18.00, this book, while certainly thick, offers very little value for money given that each page is taken up with a single-panel drawing. The material improves as the book progresses, with the first three issues/chapters being devoted to overly-cutesy celebrations of individuality, uniqueness, and the inviolate right to one’s own agency (all noble themes, to be sure, but as played-out at this point as intentional irony), the middle chapters/issues offering interpretative strips that touch more directly on subjects  connected to the publication’s title, and the last few coalescing into less-abstract and frankly thoroughly absorbing relationship narratives. I like what Foster-Dimino is doing, don’t get me wrong, but from here on out I think I’ll be picking up her ever-evolving and increasingly-challenging work in single installments.

Laura Kenins’ Steam Clean is another one that actually came out a few months back (courtesy of the Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture) but that I’m just getting around to now, and it’s a reasonably evocative and absorbing piece about a group of queer women (as well as one individual in the midst of gender transition) who rent out a sauna for a private party and end up with an unexpected guest — the Latvian goddess of fertility. Kenins’ figure drawings are quite good and her use of colored pencils and pastels gives this 84-page (damn, I’m gonna say it, sorry in advance) graphic novel a unique and striking look, but her narrative is let down by some weird pacing choices, ill-handled scene transitions, and clunky, expository dialogue. The women have a lot to say — all of it important — about unfair challenges they face in the workplace, sexual harassment, and other subjects, but many don’t have much by way of an individual voice and Kenins seems to struggle not so much with what she wants to say but how she wants to say it. Worth a read, absolutely, but worth a buy at ten bucks? I can’t quite go that far.

Ditto for Hazel Newlevant’s Sugar Town (which has also been out for a month or two now), a genuinely charming little book from Alternative Comics that addresses issues of polyamory, BDSM, and relationships between bisexual and heterosexual partners with disarming frankness and honesty, and even weaves a bit of a spell over readers — but damn, it’s over all too quickly. Newlevant’s breezy, expressive, anime-influenced illustrations are fun and help put the reader at ease with unfamiliar (for square old-timers like me, anyway) situations fraught with fluctuating boundaries (to the extent they even exist), but each of the four “chapters” (which lead me to believe this was serialized elsewhere previously, probably online) is a two- or three-minute read, and $9.99 is a lot to pay for a comic that has just over 40 pages of story and art. I loved it, no question about that, but it’s not worth the hefty price tag.

Okay, that’s it for this week! Next time out I promise to try to keep things confined to “brand new” publications, if at all possible.