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.

 

 

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/22/2017 – 10/28/2017

Hey! Whatcha reading this week? I’ll tell you what stood out, for good ill, in my book pile —

R. Sikoryak breaks the mold and gets contemporary in The Unquotable Trump, done up in old-school “giant size special” format by Drawn + Quarterly, and man oh man is this a humdinger of unfortunate laughs. Real quotes from our shithead-in-chief transposed onto re-creations of classic comic book covers (ranging from Plop! to 300 to Watchmen to X-Men and everything in between) is one of those things that only seems like a “no-brainer” after someone’s already done it, and if that “someone” is Sikoryak, you know you’re in very good hands. I guess he originally did this as a 16-page b&w mini-comic, but 48 lush, gigantic, full-color pages is definitely a big step up and does the material justice. It’s all got a tinge of gallows humor to it right now, but if and when this verbally-flatulent, syphilitic asshole is finally impeached, hopefully we’ll all be able to laugh at this book with no strings attached. Your “must-buy” item of the week, right here. The $20.00 cover price is admittedly steep, but you can find it for $13.00-$14.00 easily enough with little to no effort — and you should.

Noel Freibert is a cartoonist I’m only vaguely familiar with by way of his strips in the last Kramers Ergot, but his new graphic novel from Koyama Press, Old Ground, is more than enough to ensure that he’s firmly on my radar screen from here on out. Frogs, dogs, bats, demolition crew workers, dead kids talking to each other from six feet under — it’s damn hard to describe this one, folks, and you really do just have to go with Freibert’s ever-shifting flow. Black, inky blotches coalesce into shapes and forms only barely recognizable as people, animals, or objects; actions make little to no concrete “sense,” at least as far as we understand the term; events start, stop, start up again with little if any regard to instantly-outmoded notions of linearity; giant 18-wheel trucks become small enough to be kicked by their drivers without explanation — and it all seems both inherently creepy and perversely funny. This book exists in a category of one, defies comparison, and challenges your comprehension at all times — but never, miraculously, your patience. I read it from cover to cover in one sitting, then read it again. Might just do the same tomorrow.

I was pretty jazzed for Black Crown Quarterly #1, the debut installment of the centerpiece anthology for Shelly Bond’s new IDW imprint, but now I really can’t remember why. The format’s nice — heavy cardstock cover and thick, glossy paper — but $6.99 for 48 pages is pretty steep, especially when about half the book is promo material that you’ll be able to get for free either online or in the back of other Black Crown books soon enough. Of the original strips on offer, Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub” is probably the best (although Cindy Whitehead and Nicole Goux’s skateboarding-themed little one-pager is pretty fun, too), a rather cute and charming piece of cartooning that makes the pub at the geographical “center” of this fictitious universe seem a place very much worth exploring, but the other two we’re presented with —one written by CUD bandmates Will Potter and Carl Puttnam and illustrated by Bond’s husband Philip, the other written and drawn by Jamie Coe — are decidedly unimpressive and way too self-consciously “cool,” and the same exact criticisms apply to a short article on Leeds, UK and the interviews with Black Crown creators Tini Howard and Peter Milligan.

The biggest problem here though? The overall Black Crown aesthetic is being defined quickly, and it seems very narrow indeed : Bond’s anglophile and late-’70s punk rock sensibilities might make for a successful series or two, but as the guiding ethos of an entire line? I dunno, seems like things could get pretty repetitive (and dull) pretty quickly, and there’s just about nothing here for a person under, say, 40 years old to relate to. I still have every intention of seeing where Kid Lobotomy goes, and Beto’s art alone makes Assassinistas a guaranteed pull-list addition, but I didn’t need an expensive, overly-pleased-with-itself version of Image+ or Marvel’s Foom! to sell me on those. Who’d have thought that Last Gang in Town, one of the last Vertigo series to go out on Bond’s watch, would serve as the template for the entire next phase of her career?

The last thing worth a mention this week is The Ruff And Reddy Show #1, the latest debut from the DC/Hanna-Barbera partnership. There’s more than a bit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to this book, with flesh-and-blood humans and animated cartoon characters (known as “celimates”) existing side-by-side, but given that this one’s written by Howard Chaykin, you know there’s going to be extra layers of too-real darkness underpinning that premise, and so there is : the “celimates” are clearly second-class citizens, our two protagonists turn out to never have gotten along, off-color jokes have potentially disturbing implications — yeah, innocence lost is the order of the day across the board.

That being said, dull revisionism is hardly the raison d’etre of this six-parter, methinks. In the manner of Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones (although I’m in no way prepared to say this comic compares to that one in terms of quality — at least not yet), Chaykin seems bound and determined to use the apparently-free reign he’s been given in terms of “re-imagining” these characters as a means for shining a (bright, glaring) light on real-world social ills and inequities. Mac Rey’s animation-cel style artwork couches and even soothes some of the script’s heavier body blows. I think I like where this one is heading.

Okay, I think we’re good for this week. I’ve got a package on the way from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half, so chances are pretty good that there will be at least a couple of items of interest worth talking next time around in there. See you again in seven!