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!












THE AMAZING REMARKABLE MONSIEUR LEOTARD

THE AMAZING REMARKABLE MONSIEUR LEOTARD
Written by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best and Drawn by Eddie Campbell
Published by
First Second

Etienne is a shit-shoveling peon, strolling through life heedless of its complexities. But when his uncle, Monsieur Leotard, the greatest acrobat and leader of the circus that the world knows, dies, Etienne plants a fake moustache on his face and dives into a new life, becoming something he truly knows nothing about. Floating along on the flying trapeze, he’ll contend with food shortages, fires, love, and a voyage on a very doomed ship, all in the pursuit of happiness and an existence that makes sense.

As I wrote the above, I struggled with it, because I did something that the book itself does not: make it appear as though there is a true narrative to the piece. I assure you, that’s not the case at all: MONSIEUR LEOTARD is one of the strangest, most artistically brave books I’ve read in recent memory, and I do it a disservice by suggesting that it makes some sort of sense.

Eddie Campbell’s latest makes very little sense at all, and while 99% of the time that’s reason to pan a book, in this case it happens to be the primary reason to recommend it. Campbell and collaborator Best take this odd character and his supporting cast and throw them into one absurdist situation after another, even eschewing proper chapter structure by calling each one “The Next Episode.” It speaks to the repetitive absurdity of what is going on and clues you in to their intention not to back down from their intentions to not make simplistic storytelling decisions along the way.

The bold nature of the art is at times breathtaking. An early two page spread features the trapeze act being performed against the sheet music for “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.” External facts and narrative tools appear outside the panels, commentating at what has been happening and supplementing the readers’ knowledge. One section shifts gears and becomes an illustrated novella. Campbell never allows you to become comfortable or complacent in this odd world he’s created on the page.

It took a second reading for me to really find my footing in LEOTARD but that was time well spent. It’s a terrific piece, and a sweet return to form for Campbell after last year’s somewhat turgid BLACK DIAMOND DETECTIVE AGENCY.

Marc Mason