AISLE SEAT 2.0.60

AISLE SEAT 2.0.60: 10 FOR 2010

By Marc Mason

I wasn’t going to do a “best of” or “top ten” list this year. I really wasn’t. But my old pal Doc Beechler ran his own list, and when I saw it, I had to challenge it for what I felt was a very incomplete look at this year’s work. Then I realized that I could come up with ten great books (not necessarily the ten best published this year- I didn’t read everything, obviously) that I could easily point to and saw “people of Earth- READ THESE.”

So, people of Earth, if you’re looking for some awesome graphic novels to spend some time with: READ THESE.

The first thing that comes to mind is ALEC: THE YEARS HAVE PANTS from Top Shelf. This massive 600+ page omnibus collects almost every single bit of Eddie Campbell’s amazing autobiographical comics under one cover. I can’t think of a more consistently excellent autobiographical work ever produced in the medium- it’s deep and richly thought out without diving too far into its own navel and shows the growth of the man and the artist across a lengthy period of time. As usual, Top Shelf brings superior production values to the table, and that makes this book tough to beat.

If you’re looking for artistic ambition, go no further than RETURN OF THE DAPPER MEN from Archaia. Janet Lee’s stunning art illustrates Jim McCann’s modern fable in a way never really seen before in comics. The success of this book demonstrates the strength of the graphic novel to challenge and amaze and succeed in the marketplace, even when it isn’t from Marvel or DC. Produce something that exudes greatness and the people will find you. If you haven’t found this on your shelf yet, get cracking.

Speaking of high sales, Oni Press’ SCOTT PILGRIM VOL. 6 (and the entire series, really) dominated the charts this year, and with good reason. Bryan O’Malley’s series had been growing in popularity with each new release, and having the last part arrive to coincide with the film adaptation was exquisite timing. Of course, it helped that the resolution we got was immensely satisfying. Scott finally pulled himself together, gained some self-awareness, and became a person worthy of love- not just worthy of Ramona. Readers’ patience was rewarded, and that’s a rare thing, indeed.

John Layman and Rob Guillory’s CHEW (Image Comics) is definitely a book that pays off for readers that stick with it and pay close attention. From Layman’s twisting and turning plot mechanics to Guillory’s gift for planting Easter eggs in the backgrounds of his wonderfully detailed pages, CHEW delights with wit both verbal and visual. It walked off with awards at both the Eisners and the Harveys this year, and they were well-deserved. No one else in “mainstream” comics is doing anything as challenging or unfettered. One of the few comics that comes out monthly that is legitimately worth your money.

That said, if I was going to steer you toward another book that came out monthly and was worth your time and effort, it would be the second volume of BATTLEFIELDS from Dynamite Entertainment. This year we got another nine issues of Garth Ennis’ incredible World War II comics, and while they weren’t the equal of volume one, they were still absolutely amazing. No one in the past twenty years has even come close to matching Ennis’ prowess at depicting aspects of that conflict and in finding stories with a rich emotional core that fit within its parameters. One of the gutsiest things an author must do is provide the ending that works and is deserved, not the one the reader wants. This book gives you the endings that are earned.

On the subject of war comics, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’ LIFE AND TIMES OF MARTHA WASHINGTON (Dark Horse) is full of terrible conflict indeed. This massive omnibus edition includes every story featuring Martha, including some stuff not previously collected. This book initially came out as a hundred dollar hardcover, making it way out of my budget, but we finally got a paperback version this year, a happy occasion indeed. MARTHA was a book that Miller wrote when he was still taking comics seriously, and Gibbons puts just the right amount of softness on the satirical edges. Violent, profane, sexy, and smart, this character’s adventures were always something to appreciate and treasure. I’ll miss her, but having this book around makes that much easier to bear.

Dialing back to material before Martha (who debuted in 1991), IDW delivered the best archival project of the year- of the past few years, really- with THE BLOOM COUNTY LIBRARY. These beautiful hardcover editions of Berke Breathed’s classic cartoon strip send me spiraling back to my teen years, smiling all the way. Using restored versions of the strips, the series lets us see the characters (Opus, Milo, Steve Dallas, Bill the Cat, and friends) in ways we haven’t seen since some of the strips actually appeared in newspapers. Material is uncensored and/or restored from edits made for previous print collections. Breathed pipes in with observations and to explain some story moments and jokes. Background work is reproduced. This series is essential for any serious fan of great strip work.

Few anthology series could ever be considered essential, because they’re usually way too hit-or-miss to merit serious consideration. Not so for FLIGHT VOL.7 (Villard) which continues to be the single best anthology on shelves today. Editor Kazu Kibuishi has a gift for bringing together talent and getting the best from it- and that includes his own work as well. FLIGHT offers amazing storytelling, stunning art, superior production value… no mean feat for a book on its seventh try. But a scan across the series shows that virtually nothing has changed since book one. They’ve all been this good.

Another series that has been good from the start and never wavered in quality is Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim’s DUNGEON (NBM) which saw a couple of volumes translated for North American audiences. The standout was DUNGEON: MONSTRES VOL. 3; the series turned its eye upon the female characters of the Dungeon world, and the results were powerful and moving. The pair put in the spotlight found challenges that were emotionally unsettling as well as violent and gut-wrenching, showing a darker side of the world that reminded us that it is not a world of light and happiness. These books have their amusements, but they are also full of war and death. I have repeatedly stated that I believe Trondheim is the world’s greatest living comics creator. Check out these books to find out why.

Amusement can be found, though, in massive amounts by looking in the right place. That place would be AFRODISIAC (AdHouse) by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg. This book is a glorious tribute to many things- the history of comics, blaxploitation filmmaking… but mostly it’s just hilarious. The character, Afrodisiac, is shown in various incarnations, each drawn in the style of different eras in comics production, with multiple changes in name and origin, just as characters have been treated by their publishers across the decades. The results are stunning- few books this funny are this intelligent in their execution. The creative duo were the gents behind STREET ANGEL a few years ago, and this book demonstrates, once again, that together, they make material that is worth its weight in gold.

And there you go. Ten great comics and graphic novels for 2010. Click a link below and go buy a couple. Trust me- you’ll be glad you did! See you in 2011!












CAVEMEN IN SPACE

CAVEMEN IN SPACE/MERMIN #1-2
Written and Drawn by Joey Weiser
Published by Tragic Planet/AdHouse Books

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Some new stuff from alt-cartoonist Joey Weiser…

CAVEMEN IN SPACE is a full-length graphic novel (self-published, but distributed by AdHouse), and it’s a bit of a hoot. The setting is the far-flung future, where we find that scientist Albert Casimir has started one of the strangest experiments in human history: using a time machine, he snatched seven early humans from their era and transplanted them to his space station. There he has begun the process of studying them and educating them to the ways of modernity with varying results.

Sound like a recipe for disaster? You might think so, but the seven are doing reasonably well, thanks to their easy acceptance of such amenities as art, makeup, comic books, and robots. Unfortunately, their domestic tranquility is disrupted when an alien invasion force arrives and wants to make off with the Earth’s resources… and the professor’s time machine.

That’s your recipe for disaster right there.

There’s an elegant charm at the heart of the book, as Weiser explores what happens when someone finds themselves taken from a more innocent time… and dropped in a warped version of that innocent time. The characters are funny, the pace is zippy, and the ending is wonderfully emotionally resonant. If you’re in the mood for something fun, this book would do the trick.

I’m a huge fan of minicomics, so I was delighted to see MERMIN #1-2 in the package with CAVEMEN. In this kid-friendly tale, a merman named Mermin arrives on a local beach while some kids are playing in the sand, and they take him in and befriend him. Of course, passing someone off as human when they have gills isn’t quite as easy as you think, but they give it their level best when it comes to taking Mermin to school. Unfortunately, such things as playing tetherball and swimming in the pool during gym class have unintended consequences when they involve a merman, and that’s where the real fun kicks in during these first two issues. I really dug MERMIN, and the all-ages vibe bodes well for it finding a wider audience once Weiser has finished the tale and he goes to collect it.

PRIME BABY

PRIME BABY
Written and Drawn by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Thaddeus K. Fong wasn’t expecting much when his parents announced that they were going to have another baby. He knew that his own importance would fade into the background a bit, and he expected to be annoyed. But when his sister Maddie is born, it gets a lot stranger than the young boy could have expected. One day in math class, he learns about prime numbers, and when he begins to pay attention to his little sis, he begins to believe that her gurgles and coos are more than just the ramblings of a slow-to-develop child; he instead determines that they are actually a coded signal from aliens and that Earth is about to be invaded.

And really- what else is there to think?

PRIME BABY is a hilariously charming little book, first serialized in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE and now collected together under one cover. Gene Luen Yang has already proven himself to be one of the most talented comics creators working today through books like AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and THE ETERNAL SMILE, and this book, while more of a trifle than those efforts, only cements his place in the pantheon. Even when Yang takes the lighter route, his work transcends that of so many of his peers.

I won’t give away what happens in this book, but suffice it to say, there is more to Thaddeus’ little sister than first meets the eye, but that isn’t what’s important or interesting about the book. What stands out is the slow arc of the young boy suddenly learning that he needs to love Maddie and be the best brother he can, no matter what. A lesson surely worth internalizing, and PRIME BABY a journey most definitely worth taking.

AFRODISIAC

AFRODISIAC
Written and Drawn by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Published by AdHouse Books

Reviewed by Marc Mason

It’s a rare, but lovely feeling to have a book in front of you that you’re expecting great things from and not only have it live up to the anticipatory feelings you had, but actually surpass them. AFRODISIAC is one of those books.

For starters, it comes from the creative team of Rugg and Maruca. Household names? Maybe not in homes that only buy bigstupidevent comics from Marvel and DC. But discerning readers know them as the duo behind one of the 2000s best indy comics, STREET ANGEL. Few comic books hummed with as much life, energy, and creativity as that little gem, and the snippets of AFRODISIAC that have cropped up here and there over the last couple of years had only whetted my appetite for more. They do not disappoint.

It isn’t easy to describe AFRODISIAC in a single sentence. Is it a brilliant satire of the entire blaxploitation genre, regardless of medium? Yes. Is it an exuberant celebration of the changing nature of comics across decades of publishing? Sure. Is it a charming homage to the history of comics itself, using covers and artistic style to tell a meta-story about how the medium has engaged with its readers and the broader culture? Damn straight. This book is all of those, and more. The main character, Afrodisiac, was once a man named Alan Diesler (or Deasler, in a nod to many character origins, and even a classic faux pas where Peter Parker was once called Peter Palmer), and through a variety of changing origin stories (again, a nod to comics’ love of retcons) gained the powers of an irresistible-to-women, street-wise, super-powered man that keeps the people safe and the ladies satisfied. The book itself tells a broad variety of stories about the character, shifting from era to era, shifting art styles, and poking at the culture of the times along the way.

For instance, one amusing tale finds him squaring off against Nixon himself for the love of an alien invader. Evoking the early 70s and the counter-culture’s (well-deserved) paranoia about Nixon, the story works on multiple levels, even though it is perfectly lovely as a surface read. Nothing wrong with a little humor, after all. That is, however, why Rugg and Maruca work so well together; yes, the book is one big, sloppy wet kiss towards an undervalued piece of our popular culture, but it also finds a way to subtly weave in some depth as well.

I could go on and on about the numerous “covers” of original AFRODISIAC issues included here, or the way the “reprints” really do look like reprints, or about the tremendous job done by Rugg and AdHouse honcho Chris Pitzer on the book’s design. But instead I’ll just say: buy the damned thing. This was one of those rare books that made me happy from the moment I opened the cover. Highly recommended.

Also from AdHouse:

DRIVEN BY LEMONS
Written and Drawn by Joshua W. Cotter

I don’t know precisely what DRIVEN BY LEMONS is, which makes it exceedingly difficult to review. Joshua Cotter, whose first graphic novel, SKYSCRAPERS OF THE MIDWEST, was brilliant, returns with this book… which is either a fascinating artistic exercise or a colossal failure.

Ostensibly, the book follows the story of an anthropomorphic rabbit that winds up in a mental institution. However, if it really is meant to solely be that character’s story of a descent into madness, it doesn’t come close to working. The narrative is so thin as to be absent, and while I respect that a book about a character’s insanity shouldn’t be a linear journey, there have to be enough touchstones to allow the reader to follow a broader story. And that simply isn’t the case here.

However, the book’s design and entire look calls into question that it all might just be an artistic experiment. It looks, and is shaped, like a notebook. There’s a ton of text at the front. Pages digress into explorations of form, movement, and pacing. So maybe what Cotter was aiming for here was a way to delve into some avant garde storytelling. If so, DRIVEN BY LEMONS becomes a lot more interesting, because there are certainly plenty of things going on here that capture the eye and make you examine the pages carefully.

But again, there’s no story, or at least one worth following. What is this book? Upon a second examination, I still wasn’t really certain. Thus, all I can ultimately say is caveat emptor; be sure about what you’re getting. If you can.

JOHNNY HIRO #1

JOHNNY HIRO #1
Written and Drawn by Fred Chao
Published by AdHouse Books

Reviewed by Marc Mason

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

Pure, unadulterated genius. I don’t often get to say that when I finish reading a comic, but I did when I got through with JOHNNY HIRO. Since Maruca and Rugg finished STREET ANGEL, the shelves have been missing a well-executed absurdist action-comedy, but that void is now filled thanks to Fred Chao.

The plot is simple: Johnny and his girlfriend Mayumi are enjoying a night of dream-filled sleep when a super-sized lizard named Gozadilla arrives in Brooklyn and promptly kidnaps the girl by punching through the apartment building and snatching her from her bed. Woken by the event, Johnny gives chase, looking for some possible way he might be able to save the woman he loves. Falls from great heights, reminisces about battling giant robots, and a surprise motive for the giant lizard’s behavior follow, all culminating in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offering up the most plausible explanation for shitty public services that you’ve ever heard.

Besides being a clever writer, Chao also proves himself to be a terrific artist as well. In order to get the reader to buy into the book, the art must make the absurd nature of the plot and the monster blend together with the oddly grounded milieu of JOHNNY’s New York. He does just that; there’s a fluid grace to the humans, the background, and even to Gozadilla that give the book a look that’s just right. He also refuses to waster space; not only is every page in the book full of art and story, but the inside covers have pieces of the tale as well, bringing this up to a 34-page book for your three yanqui dollars. Believe me, that’s money you’ll consider more than well spent.

ADHOUSE PAIR

ACE FACE/REMAKE
Written and Drawn by Mike Dawson and Lamar Abrams
Published by AdHouse Books

Two from the fine folks at AdHouse…

REMAKE is by writer/artist Lamar Abrams, and is one of the strangest things I’ve read in quite a while. The stories star Max Guy, a crime-fighting robot, which on the surface seems straight-forward enough. But Abrams’ ideas and concepts take a long walk off the map of sanity, which makes the book stand out, to say the least. In one story, he defeats a devil-horned robot by buying a pie from a vendor on a passing cloud and hitting the devil robot in the face with it. In another, he vomits up a kids’ cereal that then comes to life and goes on a rampage. His best friend wears a metal mask (resembling Dr. Doom’s). He’s a robot but gets bruised and bleeds. In short, there’s very little in the way of conventional storytelling here, but it’s certainly interesting. And somehow, Abrams sticks to his story’s internal logic and makes it all work. It shouldn’t, but it does. That’s no small feat.

On the slip side is Mike Dawson’s ACE FACE, which strives for some of that oddity but never quite gets there. Ace-Face is Colin Turney, who was born without arms. However, his Uncle created mechanical arms that would function as replacements for the boy, eventually leading him to become a superhero. There are some things here that work; Colin himself is a very appealing character, as is his sweetheart Sally, and Dawson does some terrific work on the art. However, the story structures feel like a riff on Paul Grist’s books (JACK STAFF in particular) but never quite reach that level of whimsy and charm. And that, more than anything, is where ACE FACE didn’t work for me- it lacks an essential charm. The elements are here to suggest that Dawson is just having a lark, but they don’t coalesce on the page to push that feeling across.

Marc Mason

JOHNNY HIRO

JOHNNY HIRO
Written and Drawn by Fred Chao
Published by AdHouse Books

I’m a little jaded these days when it comes to comics, and frankly it takes a lot to get me excited. But when I went to the post office recently and saw a package of review books from Chris Pitzer’s always excellent AdHouse Books line, I got a little twinge. And when I opened it to find the trade paperback collection of JOHNNY HIRO?

Yeah- that gave me a charge.

A couple of years ago, when the first issue of JOHNNY came out, I fell head over heels in love with it. It was a masterpiece of pop art, combining giant monsters, romance, New York City cultural ridiculousness, and wrapped in enough charm to make even the grumpiest person smile. I referred to it as “pure, unadulterated genius” and I meant it. Issue two hit, and it was another smash, playing slickly off of chase flicks, Jackie Chan movies, rent control problems, and Anthony Bourdain. Fred Chao was clearly someone to keep a permanent eye on. A third issue rolled around, and then things went a bit quiet. Diamond jacked up its benchmarks, and I personally feared for the book’s future. But not to worry; Chao has brought together issues one through three and what would have been issues four and five, as well as some one-page strips in this indispensible collection.

What else does he deliver? Giant fish (“Smack My Fish Up”- oi!), car chases, sushi rolling, a rollicking parody of NIGHT COURT, David Byrne, the inspirational words of Gwen Stefani… the list goes on. JOHNNY HIRO is so full of pop that you worry it might explode. Yet what makes the book work is that its nature never consumes the story; Johnny has amazing adventures, but it is always about getting home at the end of the day and trying to build a happy life with his girlfriend Mayumi. Chao’s genius is that he knows how to avoid straying too far from the love story that defines who Hiro really is.

Packed full of wicked cool art, the wittiest (and driest) of dialogue, JOHNNY HIRO is likely to be as much fun as any one graphic novel will give you in 2009. Sitting down and revisiting the characters and their crazy adventures was the greatest of comics pleasures. This gets my highest possible recommendation.

Marc Mason

NOTES OVER YONDER, TIGER!TIGER!TIGER!

NOTES OVER YONDER/TIGER!TIGER!TIGER!
Written and Drawn by Scott Morse
Published by
Red Window/AdHouse Books

Scott Morse is one of those talents whom it can be easy to forget about. Why? Because he’s quiet. He doesn’t work on “mainstream” comics. He doesn’t start fights on the internet. He doesn’t spend his time criticizing other artists’ work. And he takes his time with projects, making sure that he has achieved his vision fully before releasing them. In short: he’s something of an anomaly. Plus, he’s kind of busy at his day job, toiling as a story artist and designer for Pixar, only the greatest animation company in the world. So when he releases a new book, it tends to be something special.

And within the space of two months, he’s releasing two!

NOTES OVER YONDER is a wordlessly told tale of a musician suffering from terrible heartache, his cat, and the dreams which carry him along until it is time to pick up the guitar again and play his soul out into the crowd. It’s a beautifully painted book, presented as a sweet little hardcover, and definitely an emotionally resonant offering. While there is no dialogue, there are three written notes in the story that tell you all you need to know about what has happened to this man and what will happen to him in the future. Perhaps just as much as the story, I was drawn into NOTES by looking at the composition of the pages; each page is an individual “panel”, forcing Morse to execute his storytelling on multiple levels. This is a fine, fine effort.

TIGER!TIGER!TIGER! is a wildly different animal (pardon the pun). Functioning as sketchbook and as a guide through Morse’s adventures as a father, there’s an aching sincerity to the book. The author is full of doubt and worry, putting up a front to carry himself through the difficult moments. I admired the book’s honesty, and was struck by how facile Morse is in working in different artistic mediums, but at times, it was a bit too much for me. A little less spiritual “nudity” might have made for a more comfortable read. Still, as presented in a lovely Euro-style hardcover, this is another worthy effort from a great talent.

Marc Mason

MESMO DELIVERY

MESMO DELIVERY
Written and Drawn by Rafael Grampa
Published by
AdHouse Books

It sounds like a simple job: Rufo will drive a large truck full of goods, along with a passenger, to a far-off destination. The only thing he has to do is promise not to open the truck and look at the cargo. Shouldn’t be a problem. But at one truckstop, it all goes to Hell- he gets challenged to a fight by a local that turns deeply bloody and violent out in the parking lot. Crimes are committed, and the local… the local is determined to open the truck. That can’t be good, can it?

This is Grampa’s debut graphic novel, and wow, is it a doozy. It isn’t so much that he’s put together a brilliant story on the page; most of the twists and turns here are fairly standard. But it’s the way that Grampa executes them that catches the eye. This guy can draw like nobody’s business! His figures and faces are dynamic and lively, exaggerated just so in order to give them depth and feel on the page. His “camera movement” is astonishing, giving you angles that you don’t feel like you’ve seen thousands of times before. And his design sense is fluid and graceful, putting together a package of pages that feels like something far more epic and substantial than what’s really here. If his comics work doesn’t pan out, he has a career directing films ahead of him.

The book will be solicited to hit shelves in November, so if you’re looking for something a little different to check out beyond the same ol’ crap, you might want to take a look at MESMO.

Marc Mason