AISLE SEAT 2.0.68: TEN FOR 2011
By Marc Mason
Even though it seems like it, I have not read every graphic novel released in the past year. So it would be foolish, not to mention arrogant, to put together a “ten best” list. What I can do, however, is give you a list of ten outstanding books and point you in their direction. With this list, I can at least guarantee you a reading experience that is more than worth your time and money. Oh, and I will, at least, name a “book of the year.” Again, this is all my opinion- and I am more than happy to argue with you!
DAYTRIPPER (DC/Vertigo) collects the award-winning miniseries under one cover. Writer/artist/wonder twin combo Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba had long been proving how amazing they are, but DAYTRIPPER represented a leap even further forward into greatness.
ANYA’S GHOST (First Second) by writer/artist Vera Brosgol was the most stunning rookie debut that I saw this year. By turns humorous and flat-out frightening, this was also the best book for teen girls that I read this year as well.
LITTLE NOTHINGS VOL. 4 (NBM) is another amazing installment in writer/artist Lewis Trondheim’s art blog. I consider Trondheim to be the great living comics creator in the world right now, and this book shows him at the height of his powers.
THOR BY WALT SIMONSON OMNIBUS (Marvel) is not only an outstanding book, but also a potential murder weapon. This 1200 page beast collects the defining run on the character by the character’s defining creator. Great stories, great art, don’t drop it on your foot.
LEVEL UP (First Second) by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Thien Pham captures the angst of young adulthood perfectly, throws in an interesting conceit involving the nature of spirituality and death, and also tickles the funny bone a bit. Yang is a force to be reckoned with.
SIXTH GUN VOL. 1-2 (Oni Press) is the cream of the crop when it comes to Western horror right now. Exciting stories, great characters… writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt have sucked me into their world in a genre I tend to ignore. I read the first two trades back-to-back, not able to put them down.
RASL VOL. 3 (Cartoon Books) propels writer/artist Jeff Smith’s latest epic into the stratosphere. Sexy, action-packed, inventive… and he makes you think about what’s going on. The over-sized trade paperbacks allow the gorgeous art to breathe. One volume to go, and I can’t wait.
CHEW OMNIVORE EDITION 2 (Image Comics) won the Eisner for Best Continuing Series, and it isn’t hard to see why. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory are telling one of the most complex stories on the stands, and the book rewards you at every turn for paying attention. Funny, romantic, sick, and twisted. Brilliant.
ASTRONAUT ACADEMY (First Second) by writer/artist Dave Roman was the best all-ages book I read this year. Period. I have managed to give away both of my copies and need a new one. Great stories, great characters, great art, clever payoffs… there is nothing here to not love.
And… my book of the year:
HABIBI (Pantheon) by writer/artist Craig Thompson. It had been seven long years since Thompson had released new work, but it was worth the wait. Staggering in scope and ambition, this massive book (700 pages) delivers page after page of art that your eyes can get lost in. The love story at its core is warm, yet also horribly tragic, and while many will quibble with aspects of the tale focused on religion and culture (and I would agree with some of those quibbles) you cannot deny the sheer power that the book carries in its pages. Thompson carries you to someplace new and different, asking for your trust in his pen and ink, and if you give it to him, the rewards are grand.
Read my interview with Thompson here.
Looking over my list, I suppose I have a “publisher of the year” as well. First Second had another outstanding year- just another in a remarkable run as of late. I can’t remember the last time I read one of their books and felt “bleah” or “meh” about it. They don’t get a lot of play in the mainstream comics media, but that doesn’t matter- they just produce great books.
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Taking a look at three recent comics from three different publishers…
I’ve been enjoying LI’L DEPRESSED BOY (Image Comics) quite a bit, and issue five does a nice job of taking the character in an interesting direction. Writer Steven Struble and artist Sina Grace pick up where the last issue left off- with LDB discovering that Jazz has been playing him- and put him back in his proper, depressed funk. But the return of a friend who has been touring with his band sets our lead back on a proper path as the duo gather themselves for a road trip. The book continues to work well for a couple of reasons. One, LDB is an extremely relatable character- a good chunk of us have felt like him or been in his position before, and the creators keep it very emotionally real. Two, the book keeps it simple- it’s a book about music and heartache. No grand themes, no overreaching to make a statement. Every month this book has crept closer and closer to the top of the stack. A cover by CHEW’s Rob Guillory makes this package even sweeter.
Oni Press debuted SPONTANEOUS on Free Comic Book Day, but if you didn’t get one then, issues one (reprinting that offering) and two will be making their regular debut in San Diego this coming week. Writer Joe Harris and artist Brett Weldele present the story of Melvin Reyes, a seemingly normal kid in a seemingly normal town. But what Melvin knows and no one else suspects is that this city has an epidemic of spontaneous combustion going on. Now he is tracking the patterns and trying to identify future victims in order to stop it. When reporter Emily Durshmiller gets involved, though, Melvin begins to wonder if she will help him save lives or destroy his quest in her hopes of making a name for herself. The elements in SPONTANEOUS are thrilling- interesting conspiracy, good mystery, interesting characters- and the art by Weldele is note perfect (as with his work on SURROGATES, it’s hard to imagine the book done by anyone else). This has the look of a breakout hit.
I haven’t been very impressed with most of the recent output by Radical Comics lately but DAMAGED #1 is a step back in the right direction for the company. This is the first issue of their collaboration with Sam Worthington’s “Full Clip” imprint, and by bringing in writer David Lapham and artist Leonardo Manco, the company demonstrates just how seriously they’re working to make it a success. The story is clean and simple: Frank Lincoln- the toughest cop in San Francisco, the man that heads up their anti-organized crime taskforce, is being put out to pasture by the city government and replaced with a young idealist. But before Frank spends his last day on the job, he’s going to have to deal with two problems. Training his replacement? Easy enough. But the arrival of a vigilante who is murdering mobsters by the dozen? Considering that Frank is more than passing familiar with the identity of the shooter, that’s going to be a bit more problematic. Lapham is a pro at this kind of story, and his dialogue and pacing here are tasty, and Manco remains one of the best, most underrated artists in comics today. Recommended.
Written and Drawn by Sarah Oleksyk
Published by Oni Press
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Our culture tends to romanticize small town life, but for those that have grown up with it, we know different. Small town life is intrusive, cloistered, and generally boring. Ivy, the protagonist of this impressive graphic novel, understands that completely, living in a tiny town in Maine. She’s the daughter of a single mother that resents her and the loss of freedom Ivy represented at an early age. Ivy is an artist in an area where that most assuredly counts her amongst the freaks. And her one desire- to go to art college- could be thwarted at any minute by any number of factors: her mother, her teachers, or her hair-trigger temper.
But when she meets a guy on a trip to Massachusetts, and he seems to be just like her, life suddenly seems to have options. Unfortunately, those options come at a price, and as Ivy grows more and more distant from her “normal” life, everything she wants is at risk, including her own personal safety.
IVY is a substantial, intriguing, and deeply emotional graphic novel. Oleksyk spends a great deal of time immersing us in Ivy’s life, developing the characters based upon her perceptions, and leading us through the events that cause her to take action. Nothing Ivy does in the story feels unearned; indeed, when Ivy makes her defining choice, it feels inevitable. The book has been leading us to that point from the very beginning. The writing is strong, and you get the sense that the author spent a great deal of time putting herself in Ivy’s shoes as a character before truly deciding where the story needed to go.
Oleksyk has delivered a very personal work here as well. The relationships between the teen characters are very real, right down to the myopia kids develop when they become self-obsessed. I can only imagine that Oleksyk delved deep into her memory banks in order to deliver this kind of authenticity on the page.
At 200+ pages, there’s no question that IVY is a sit, but it’s a worthy one. It’s a terrific work, and one that readers who enjoy fine indy-style comics will enjoy.
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!
SCOTT PILGRIM’S FINEST HOUR
Written and Drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Published by Oni Press
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Amidst a flurry of hype and excitement, Bryan Lee O’Malley delivers the conclusion to the SCOTT PILGRIM saga, with only a few questions left remaining to deal with. The obvious one is whether or not Scott and Ramona can find themselves again and repair their relationship after it was devastated in volume five. But the real question is:
After a six-year journey, has O’Malley delivered a worthwhile conclusion to his tale, or has he fallen flat on his face and taken the series with him?
Answer: the former, not the latter.
One of the more conflicting things about this series, no matter how much I’ve liked it, is that while it is funny, action-packed, creatively interesting, and loaded with fantastic characters, Scott himself is a colossal douchebag. In fact, in comics, perhaps only Iron Man matches Scott’s level of doucheness as a lead character in a series. So one of the things I was curious about in heading into this final story was whether or not Scott would overcome his basic nature and become someone worth truly rooting for. I won’t go into the spoiler-y details, but suffice it to say that the title of this book should give you a hint as to how the creator deals with that very issue. Scott has to be redeemed, and it’s the how that elevates this book to the plateau it needed to reach in order to offer a satisfying conclusion.
Indeed, Ramona’s role this time around (as far as “screen time” goes) is rather reduced. Her presence is on every page, as Scott struggles to pull himself together after their split, but ultimately, this book, this series, really, is about Scott’s journey from massive fuckup to someone worthy of receiving love and affection- not just from Ramona, but from his friends and even his family.
That makes it sound like heady stuff, so I should assure you that we are once again treated to plenty of wicked cool action sequences and ludicrous dialogue, as well as some sloppy hookup attempts. In short, when I finished, I felt like O’Malley had given me as a reader what I deserved. And I look forward to sitting down some day and reading all six books in succession.
FRENEMY OF THE STATE #1
Written by Rashida Jones, Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis and Illustrated by Jeff Wamester
Published by Oni Press
Reviewed by Avril Brown
Ariana Von Holmberg is a beautiful young socialite with more money than your average millionaire and a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Though skilled in several useful arenas, including self-defense, horseback riding and computer hacking, she lacks a certain amount of impulse restraint and the ability to keep her temper, which soon lands her in trouble she cannot lawyer her way out of.
After spying on her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend (who happens to be the son of a senator) via his own security cameras and breaking into his estate, Ari does not care for what she discovers and reacts accordingly. Her ‘reaction’ lands her behind bars and into the hands of a few select CIA officials who feel she can serve her country in an uniquely beneficial way.
FRENEMY OF THE STATE is boasting a feminine lead many women, and plenty of men, can get behind. Ari is spoiled but not rotten, she knows her (illegal) way around a computer, she can break into houses of government officials, she has a heavy bag in her condo to work out (some of) her aggression and she knows her Lewis Carroll. What is not to love? Though three names can claim writing credit, FRENEMY’s script has a coherent flow to it as well as a sharp humor, keeping the story alive and snappy. There are also several engaging angles taken in this book, including a Twitter page intro and a tongue-in-cheek interrogation session.
The penciling is edgy and linear which works for parts of the book, in particular the action sequences, and though Wamester could stand to soften up his work for the more subdued panels I am looking forward to seeing how his art develops over the course of the series.
There is comedy, social scenarios and current pop culture lingo threaded throughout the book in addition to the action sequences, offering something for everyone. With a knock-out new leading lady, a story idea which (if done well) is consistently entertaining and a smart sense of fun, FRENEMY OF THE STATE is a book which holds plenty of promise.
Written by Jamie S. Rich and Drawn by Nicolas Hitori De and Joelle Jones
Published by Oni Press
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Three young girls get their hands on some mystical knowledge and begin developing their use of magical powers at a young age. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.
For instance, they form their bond at a very young age, but as we all know, bonds get tested as people grow older, and as they shift into their teens (where the book takes place), cracks in the friendship armor are beginning to show. Matters get a bit more stressed as two of the girls are publicly slandered in ways that suggests that the third is making a play to steal everyone’s powers for herself. And when you throw a boy into the mix that more than one is interested?
Yeah. Things go wrong.
SPELL CHECKERS almost feels like something of a throwback graphic novel. This is the kind of book that Oni really made their name producing, and it’s no coincidence that former Oni editor and long-time Oni scribe Jamie S. Rich is behind it. Rich has always had a gift for witty scripting that has a ton of cross-gender appeal, and that’s certainly the case with this book. The plot, which basically boils down to “something comes between friends and they have to learn to work together and become friends again” would surely feel stale in lesser hands. Hitori De handles most of the art (Jones only does a couple of flashbacks), and he delivers solid, if unspectacular work. Had this book come out ten years ago, Chynna Clugston would have probably drawn it, and that would have really taken it up a few notches. She would have delivered a little more pizzazz to the proceedings.
What really works here is that Rich understands something that few comics writers do: the journey counts. The resolution here works, and it’s funny, but it also feels like a natural part of the plot progression. The friendships get their focus first, and that makes SPELL CHECKERS a good time waiting to be had.
Written by Ian Shaughnessy and Drawn by Mike Holmes
Published by Oni Press
REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0
Holden Rodgers is a slacker idiot. The worst kind of slacker idiot, actually. He’s just lost his girlfriend because of his propensity for paying more attention to video games than her, never quite realizing that he had something good working. But when he meets Casey Bryan, that might just change. She’s cute, funny, smart, and seemingly willing to put up with a lot of bullshit from a guy. Perfect for Holden. But when their relationship progresses, a new trouble arises: Casey opens for business as a tutor, and her ads and website make her look like the wet dream of every horny frat boy on campus. Now, in order to keep his relationship alive, Holden must scheme to keep her clients away from her… even if it means assuming a new identity and becoming the second, more mysterious, man of her dreams. But what happens when it seems like she likes the new guy better and finds Holden’s act tiresome?
They don’t make many like SHENANIGANS anymore. The back cover describes the book as an homage to Billy Wilder’s films, and that’s a pretty good comparison. There’s also a bit of a modernist Marx Brothers feeling to some of the scenes as well. Few comics go the straight comedy route, and putting together a solid romantic comedy is even more difficult. But Shaughnessy’s script is a hoot, full of genuine laughs and snickers, aided along by some choice dialogue and characters that you believe in on the page, even in the most ludicrous moments. To be fair, however, it would all go completely tits-up if Holmes didn’t display a ton of talent for this sort of thing, making the whole bit read as tasty fun.
I think Oni Press is at its best as a publisher when working with this sort of material. They produce a number of quality graphic novels every year, but inevitably, the material that mines humor from relationships always turns out to be their best stuff. It’ll be hard to top SHENANIGANS in 2007.