Posts Tagged ‘Fantagraphics’

Fantagraphics and PictureBox

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Fantagraphics is the greatest comics publisher of all time. No company, in any field, has made products that mean more to me than Fantagraphics’. Their co-publisher Kim Thompson died too young and took a lot of counted-on revenue with him, so they launched a Kickstarter that’s in its final hours right now. The rewards are almost parodically plentiful, varied, and worthwhile; I’ll be getting a customized pair of Chuck Taylors, naturally. I urge you to give if you haven’t already — it’s basically shopping, not giving, but either way, the company that basically created alternative comics could use your help.

PictureBox is the greatest comics publisher of the 21st century. Any one of several projects published or edited by publisher Dan Nadel would make him and PBox a publisher for the ages: the work of Japanese experimentalist Yuichi Yokoyama or prescient Providence art-comics collective Paper Rad, editing the canon-disrupting classic-comics collection Art Out of Time or the paradigm-shifting magazine of alt/genre comics criticism Comics Comics. PBox also did a huge service for alt/art comics by situating them in the larger context of visual culture — in publishing collections by everyone from Richard Kern to Hipgnosis to the Hairy Who to Destroy All Monsters in addition to the best-ever books by, say, Brian Chippendale and Renee French, Nadel was making a case for commonalities that might otherwise have gone un-remarked upon. Now Dan’s closing up shop to take a more stable full-time job in the book world, so PictureBox is having an inventory-liquidating 50% off sale on everything it sells. I put together a quick list of some of the publisher’s more narratively straightforward works for a friend who was looking for recommendations along those lines.

POWR MASTRS: I suspect this seminal CF series is destined to be forever unfinished, at least in terms of its original conception as an eight-volume epic or something, but it’s basically an NC-17 Adventure Time.

COLD HEAT: Another Unfinished Symphony, though much less dramatically so; in fact you’re better off skipping the final double issue, which makes this weird huge tonal shift away from the rest of it, the rest of it being “What if someone transformed Loveless by My Bloody Valentine into a young-adult fantasy?” Co-creators Frank Santoro and Ben Jones were tentpole PictureBox franchises.

KRAMERS ERGOT 8: In some ways this is the least innovative of the super-duper-influential Kramers anthologies edited by Sammy Harkham, even the least successful, but it’s the most straightforward in terms of the emphasis on nice lengthy narratives from the contributors, and the most thought-provoking in terms of trying to suss out what was included and why, and the coolest-looking in terms of that far-out ’70s science-textbook look.

NEGRON: A great little showcase of the comics and pin-ups of the postmillennial Vaughn Bode.

EVERYTHING TOGETHER: This is a collection of all the short stories by Sammy Harkham, an alternative cartoonist in the grand Fanta/D&Q tradition.

GARDEN: There’s no story here, per se — it’s just a bunch of people in strange costumes navigating an enormous manmade amusement-park-like garden complex and discussing what they see. But Yuichi Yokoyama’s art is just super super appealing to me — he makes every movement seem as dynamic as a Jack Kirby spread, and the overall effect is like going on a strange guided tour of a depopulated Super Mario Galaxy.

It’s worth contemplating how the death of Kim Thompson forced Fantagraphics to crowdfund its continued existence, and how a life change on Dan Nadel’s part shuttered PictureBox entirely. The alt/art comics infrastructure depends on the heroic efforts of individuals; lose them and the loss can rarely be weathered, with the recent shift of the Brooklyn convention currently called CAB to an exclusively Gabe Fowler-run enterprise from one he shared with Nadel and Bill Kartalopoulos being a rare counterexample.

That said, altcomix is very good at rising from the ashes. Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books, the most direct aesthetic antecedent for PictureBox in terms of their books’ high-end design flourishes and signal-boosting of the Fort Thunder/Providence scene, spawned any number of publishers after it folded: Secret Acres and Bodega Books were both founded by former Highwater employees, Devlin himself went on to partially Highwaterify Drawn & Quarterly, and so on. Dan keeping the doors open at PBox long enough to place as many of his artists and projects with other publishers as possible tells you an awful lot about the quality of his character as well. So, we shop, and we hope.


Three deaths

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Kim Thompson was one of the very best people in the history of comics, in every way that “one of the very best people” could be meant. He would be a hall-of-fame editor if all he ever did was get Jacques Tardi and Jason across to North American audiences, and of course he did so much more than that. As the co-publisher of Fantagraphics he was 50% of the greatest comics publisher of all time; without him I would not be doing what I do for a living, in a very real way. His editorial eye, his multilingual translation capabilities, even his jocularly merciless presence in comment-thread debates are irreplaceable. I will miss him, and my heart goes out to those lucky enough to know him better than I did.

Michael Hastings was a fearless reporter who actually damaged the war machine, the highest calling of humanity. I didn’t know him but know and work with many people who did, and to hear them talk about how kind and inspiring he was on a person-to-person basis, quite aside from the importance of his work, has just given me chills. I hope those who knew him and loved him can draw some comfort from the incontrovertibly powerful and positive impact he had on people and the world.

James Gandolfini gave the greatest TV performance of all time on the greatest TV show of all time. He was an absolute marvel of an actor; I can’t think of another performance that influences me on a day to day basis years after watching it like his does. I can hear him say the words “Agent Harris!” like he just said them in my ear; I imagine him reacting to the world to this day, like sharing his enthusiasm for “Game a’ Trones” or something similarly inconsequential, since as an actor he knew that’s where the consequential stuff would emerge. He created a human, and launched a new golden age, and again, I would not be doing what I do but for his work.

Each of these people is an enormously practical loss. Each of them did things that now simply won’t get done. A huge blow to all of us.


Kim Thompson

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

I just read the news that Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics since time immemorial, has been diagnosed with lung cancer; this basically just happened, so there’s no prognosis yet.

Kim, you are the fucking best — a true hero to me. I wish like hell I could have an iota of the impact on my art form of choice that you’ve had, yet remain as approachable and articulate as you have. Get well, be well, good luck.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Gilbert and Jaime are both masters of the form of comics. That’s in addition to their character work, their sheer illustrative chops, and so on; indeed it may be the most exciting thing about them. In the case of both brothers I’ve spent a long time chewing over just a few handfuls of panels, unpacking what went into them. Here’s Gilbert’s silent, six-panel comic “Heroin,” one of three one-page shorts he made with that title. It’s just a man against one of Beto’s soon-to-be-trademark dismal nowherescapes, clutching his arm, doubling over, standing back up, hunching over again. We don’t know who he is or where he is or what he’s doing or what its connection is, specifically, to the titular substance — he could be a junkie on the nod, sure, but then why is he also Richard Nixon (or maybe it’s Bob Hope)? Whether it’s about the drug specifically or addictive, destructive influences generally (as are the other two “Heroin” strips) doesn’t really matter, since the effect stems almost entirely from the building blocks of the comic itself: the man, the background, the grid layout, the lack of any text save the title, the rhythm that builds up as we watch his body contort, the three big blocks of black in each panel (trees, man, buildings), the hands pointing in opposite directions, the diagonal hill line bisecting each panel. Every element combines to convey discomfort and unease, the sense of being at the mercy of something that lets you straighten out just long enough for it to be crushing when it knocks you back down. Long before I’d actually read any comics by Los Bros I saw this page reproduced in an issue of The Comics Journal and it has worked its way into the fabric of my comics brain ever since. It occurred to me just the other day that I’ve even done a homage to it without realizing it. I think it’s a perfect comic.

And here’s two panels from “In the Valley of the Polar Bears” by Jaime. Maggie’s been working as the kayfabe “accountant” for her wrestling-champ aunt Vicki, something of a terror in and out of the ring, but the two are barely speaking. Vicki has just confided in her wrestler boyfriend Cash that the reason she’s been treating Maggie so badly is because she cares about her a lot and is hurt by Maggie’s seeming indifference in return. So here, Cash approaches Maggie to tell her about her aunt’s secret soft spot — and then blam, next panel, it’s already been told. Jaime doesn’t show us the conversation. He doesn’t slap a big “Five minutes later…” caption up there. He doesn’t alter the size of the panels or the gutters to imply the passage of time. He doesn’t cut to another scene in between. He doesn’t show Maggie and Cash in another location so that we’d know time must have passed for them to get from place to place. He zooms in a bit but other than that they’re even in the same basic spatial configuration. He pretty much breaks every rule of how jumps in time are conveyed in comics, and yet it’s still crystal clear what happened. Talk about no-fat storytelling. Why belabor the re-presentation of information we readers already have? And why monkey with shit to explain what you’re not showing us when you can simply not show it to us and assume we’re smart enough to follow? These two panels are so bold, so full of lessons in how to tell a story with comics. I think about them all the time.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez have each been telling the stories of the same group of characters, continuously, for three decades. They’ve done lots of other stuff, Gilbert especially, but that’s the bulk of what they’ve done. No one else in comics has done it. No one’s even come close. Could someone else do it? Could someone else tell the life story of their characters, over an actual life span, and have a lot of people care passionately about where those lives end up? I won’t say it’s unimaginable, the idea of someone else doing it, because there are enough similar cases out there for you to imagine those other people doing it, and it’s only then that the gulf between Los Bros and everyone else becomes so clear. What if Bryan Lee O’Malley just kept going with Scott Pilgrim until he hit Vol. 30? What if Dave Sim had never lost his mind? What if all the B.P.R.D. spinoffs were written and drawn by Mike Mignola? What if Achewood were a comic book and Chris Onstad never burned out on it? What if Erik Larsen’s main touchstone for Savage Dragon were Márquez rather than Kirby? What if The Walking Dead were filled with Rick-level characters, instead of Rick and a bunch of other people for Rick to react to? What if Alison Bechdel made a series of Dykes to Watch Out For graphic novels instead of memoirs? What if Harvey Pekar had made stories up instead of writing them down? What if all of these things lasted for thirty years? And oh yeah, what if all of these people had siblings doing the exact same thing at the same time under the same title? It’s only when you see all the hoops one would have to jump through even to come close to what Beto and Xaime have accomplished that you really appreciate that hey, they’re the ones who built the hoops.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Any character in Love and Rockets stands a decent chance of being my favorite on any given day, because they are designed to be contemplated, and I’m the contemplative type. Today I’m thinking a lot about Tonantzin, one of the stars from Gilbert’s Palomar stories. She’s a stunningly hot small-town girl, so her rebelliousness first manifests itself by dressing provocatively and using sex to self-actualize. But her mind, heart, and psyche are all as dangerously overdeveloped as her body and sensuality, she gets swept up in a series of increasingly destructive obsessions, first with America and Hollywood, then with native culture and political protest, then with the danger of militarism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. We can see that they all provide her with an emotional and intellectual way out of the confines of Palomar and her own body — indeed things start getting really bad when she’s taught to read — but because he never really describes it as such, we never realize how far she’s willing to go until it’s too late. Ultimately she comes to believe the only truly free intellectual and political act is to destroy the body she came in. It’s an unforgettable and utterly unique portrait of how good ideas and good people can nevertheless combine into something very bad. It’s a lesson that life entails losing vibrant, lovely people you neither want nor expect to lose. It’s a tragedy for a young woman and the people who love her. It’s a commentary on the hopelessness of the political climate of the day. Today I find myself wondering whether if she’d grown up in Hoppers instead of Palomar, and had punk and the Locas as a release valve instead of abnegative protest, would she still be alive today? On the flip side, would Speedy Ortiz still be alive if he’d grown up in Palomar instead of Hoppers, in a place where it was easier to form romantic relationships and harder to form ones based on a shared propensity for collective macho violence? This is the kind of thing you could do all day long with character after character after character from both Gilbert and Jaime. They’re drawn to be viewed from all angles.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Mario Hernandez is the great lost alternative cartoonist, the Lost Bro Hernandez. His interest in cosmopolitanism, leftist politics, the conflation of activism and terrorism by the authorities, the pas de deux between terrorism and authoritarianism, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary power of art and pop culture, the Third World as a petri dish for first-world government’s reimportation of radicalism, all within the framework of vaguely science-fictional thrillers — he is in many ways the perfect comics-maker for our present moment. With its heavy use of blacks his style sits comfortably alongside those of his brothers, but its density and its bold slashing brushstrokes set it completely apart. If he’d had the time or inclination to produce the same volume of work, published with the same regularity, as his brothers, we’d likely have a third pantheon-level creator from the same generation of the same family, an astonishing thing to contemplate. As it stands we have a hidden treasure, a single gem in a stack of gems, and that’s not so bad either.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Jaime Hernandez is comics’ greatest maker of standalone images. His blacks, his typography, his sense of style, the drama of his line, the sense of balance and momentum even within a single image, his use of powerful moments to convey character, the whole nine. Out of all his peers in the ’80s and ’90s alternative comics movement — the stuff I think of as High Alt, the solo anthology series cartoonists who eventually coalesced around Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, Xaime and Beto and Ware and Burns and Clowes and Brown and Doucet and Bagge and Tomine and Sacco and Woodring and French — his makes him uniquely suited for the Tumblr era, when the rebloggable, context-free image is king. As such he stands the best chance of elbowing his way into the new canon currently being established as a reaction against High Alt and its forebears, consisting mainly of high-impact, visually dazzling genre comics whose work thrives in a one-at-a-time context — Kirby and Moebius and Otomo and Miller and Chaykin and Manara and pre-alt Mazzucchelli and McCarthy and Graham. But his best images often come within the flow of a story in addition to pin-ups, posters, covers, and title pages, and his interests broaden the canon-of-spectacle beyond solving problems through violence and/or sexy stylishness. They work equally well as vehicles for devastating emotional reveals, or as t-shirts.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


Your Love and Rockets 30th Anniversary thought of the day

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Outside of erotica and autobiography, no cartoonist has ever woven sex so indissolubly into the fabric of his comics as Gilbert Hernandez, in a fashion reflective of lived experience. In all of fiction comics, only writer Alan Moore comes close. This goes beyond simply drawing hot people, although before unfortunate circumstances intervene, Tonantzin and Khamo are probably the hottest woman and man in all of comics. Gilbert’s ability to describe and depict physical attraction between his couples frequently makes for the sweetest and most romantic aspects of those relationships—whether male or female, characters’ appreciation for their partners’ hips, tits, dicks, thighs, stomachs, faces and what-have-you, and for the pleasure those parts bring them, is often just plain adorable, however freaky or kinky or dirty things might get. But Beto’s larger argument appears to be that we can no more separate our physical desires from our lives than we can detach from our physical bodies in the course of living them. This of course has a dark side: Life is frequently terrible, and thus so is sex in Gilbert’s comics. And so his greatest creation, Fritz, is the em-body-ment of all these aspects of Beto’s work: She is the sweetest, sexiest, kinkiest, dirtiest, most tragic character of them all. There are no sex scenes in Beto’s comics—life is a sex scene, for better and for worse.

Love and Rockets, the great serial comic by Gilbert, Jaime, and sometimes Mario Hernandez, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the San Diego Comic-Con International this week. Inspired by Tom Spurgeon, this week-long, daily series of posts will highlight some of my favorite things about Los Bros Hernandez and their comics. For more information, click here.


The history of Fantagraphics

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Here’s a six-page profile of Fantagraphics I wrote for Wizard a few years back, tracing it all the way from Gary Groth’s dorm room to its post-Peanuts, post-graphic-novel-boom salad days and featuring appearances by Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, Paul Hornschemeier, Brian K. Vaughan, and lots and lots of guns. Click the images below to read, or download the whole thing as a PDF. Enjoy!


The 20 Best Comics of 2011

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

20. Uncanny X-Force (Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña, Marvel): In a year when the ugliness of the superhero comics business became harder than ever to ignore, it’s fitting that the best superhero comic is about the ugliness of being a superhero. Remender uses the inherent excess of the X-men’s most extreme team to tell a tale of how solving problems through violence in fact solves nothing at all. (It has this in common with most of the best superhero comics of the past decade: Morrison/Quitely/etc. New X-Men, Bendis/Maleev Daredevil, Brubaker/Epting/etc. Captain America, Mignola/Arcudi/Fegredo/Davis Hellboy/BPRD, Kirkman/Walker/Ottley Invincible, Lewis/Leon The Winter Men…) Opeña’s Euro-cosmic art and Dean White’s twilit color palette (the great unifier for fill-in artists on the title) could handle Remender’s apocalyptic continuity mining easily, but it was in silent reflection on the weight of all this death that they were truly uncanny.

19. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 3: Century #2: 1969 (Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Top Shelf/Knockabout): I’ll admit I’m somewhat surprised to be listing this here; I’ve always enjoyed this last surviving outpost of Moore’s comics career but never thought I loved it. But in this installment, Moore and O’Neill’s intrepid heroes — who’ve previously overcome Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and the Martian war machine — finally succumb to their own excesses and jealousies in Swinging London, allowing a sneering occult villain to tear them apart with almost casual ease. It’s nasty, ugly, and sad, and it’s sticking with me like Moore’s best work.

18. The comics of Lisa Hanawalt (various publishers): As I put it when I saw her drawing of some kind of tree-dwelling primate wearing a multicolored hat made of three human skulls stacked on top of one another, Lisa Hanawalt has a strange imagination. And it’s a totally unpredictable one, which is what makes her comics – whether they’re reasonably straightforward movie lampoons or the extravagantly bizarre sex comic she contributed to Michael DeForge and Ryan Sands’s Thickness anthology, as dark and damp as the soil in which its earthworm ingénue must live – a highlight of any given day a new one pops up.

17. Daybreak (Brian Ralph, Drawn and Quarterly): Fort Thunder’s single most accessible offspring also proves to be its bleakest, thanks to an extended collected edition that converts a rollicking first-person zombie/post-apocalypse thriller into a troubling meditation on the power of the gaze. Future artcomics takes on this subgenre have a high bar to clear.

16. Habibi (Craig Thompson, Pantheon): It’s undermined by its central characters, who exist mainly as a hanger on which this violent, erotic, conflicted, curious, complex, endlessly inventive coat of many colors is hung. But as a pure riot of creative energy from an artist unafraid to wrestle with his demons even if the demons end up winning in the end, Habibi lives up to its ambitions as a personal epic. You could dive into its shifting sands and come up with something different every time.

15. Ganges #4 (Kevin Huizenga, Coconino/Fantagraphics): Huizenga wrings a second great book out of his everyman character’s insomnia. It’s quite simple how, really: He makes comics about things you’d never thought comics could be about, by doing things you never thought comics could do to show you them. Best of all, there’s still the sense that his best work is ahead of him, waiting like dawn in the distance.

14. The Congress of the Animals (Jim Woodring, Fantagraphics): The potential for change explored by the hapless Manhog in last year’s Weathercraft is actualized by the meandering mischief-maker Frank this time around. While I didn’t quite connect with Frank’s travails as deeply as I did with Manhog’s, the payoff still feels like a weight has been lifted from Woodring’s strange world, while the route he takes to get there is illustrated so beautifully it’s almost superhuman. It’s the happy ending he’s spent most of his career earning.

13. Mister Wonderful (Daniel Clowes, Pantheon): Speaking of happy endings an altcomix luminary has spent most of his career earning! Clowes’s contribution to the late, largely unlamented Funny Pages section of The New York Times Magazine is briefly expanded and thoroughly improved in this collected edition. Clowes reformats the broadsheet pages into landscape strips, eases off the punchlines and cliffhangers, blows individual images up to heretofore unseen scales, and walks us through a self-sabotaging doofus’s shitty night into a brighter tomorrow.

12. The comics of Gabrielle Bell (various publishers): Bell is mastering the autobiography genre; her deadpan character designs and body language make everything she says so easy to buy – not that that would be a challenge with comics as insightful as her journey into nerd culture’s beating heart, San Diego Diary, just by way of a for instance. But she’s also reinventing the autobiography genre, by sliding seamlessly into fictionalized distortions of it; her black-strewn images give a somber, thoughtful weight to any flight of fancy she throws at us. What a performance, all year long.

11. The Armed Garden and Other Stories (David B., Fantagraphics): Religious fundamentalism is a dreary, oppressive constant in its ability to bend sexuality to mania and hammer lives into weapons devoted to killing. But it has worn a thousand faces in a millennia-long carnevale procession of war and weirdness, and David B. paints portraits of three of its masks with bloody brilliance. Focusing on long-forgotten heresies and treating the most outlandish legends about them as fact, B.’s high-contrast linework sets them all alight with their own incandescent madness.

10. Too Dark to See (Julia Gfrörer, Thuban Press): It was a dark year for comics, at least for the comics that moved me the most. And no one harnessed that darkness to relatable, emotional effect better than Julia Gfrörer. Her very contemporary take on the legend of the succubus was frank and explicit in its treatment of sexuality, rigorously well-observed in its cataloguing of the spirit-sapping modern-day indignities that can feed depression and destroy relationships, and delicately, almost tenderly drawn. It’s like she held her finger to the air, sensed all the things that can make life rotten, and cast them onto the pages. She made something quite beautiful out of all that ugly.

9. The comics and pixel art of Uno Moralez (self-published on the web at unomoralez.com): What if an 8-bit NES cut-scene could kill? The digital artwork of Uno Moralez — some of it standard illustrations, some of it animated gifs, some of it full-fledged comics — shares its aesthetic with The Ring‘s videotape or Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie: a horror so cosmically black, images so unbearably wrong, that they appear to have leaked into and corrupted their very medium of transmission. Moralez fuses crosses the streams of supernatural trash from a variety of cultures — the legends and Soviet art of his native Russia, the horror and porn manga of Japan, the B-movies and horror stories of the States, the formless sensation aesthetic of the Internet itself — into a series of images that is impossible to predict in its weirdness but totally unflagging in its sense that you’d be better off if you’d never laid eyes on it. I can’t wait to see more.

8. The comics of Michael DeForge (various publishers): The last time you saw a cartoonist this good and this unique this young, you were probably reading the UT Austin student newspaper comics section and stumbling across a guy named Chris Ware. All four of DeForge’s best-ever comics — his divorced dad story in Lose #3, his shape-shifting/gender-bending erotica in Thickness #2, his self-published art-world fantasia Open Country, and his gorgeously colored body-horror webcomic Ant Comic – came out this year, none of them looking anything at all like anything you could picture before seeing your first Michael DeForge comic. It’s almost frightening to think where he’ll be five years from now, ten years from now…or even just this time next year.

7. The comics and art of Jonny Negron (various publishers): What if someone took Christina Hendricks’s walk across the parking lot and trip to the bathroom in Drive and made an entire comics career out of them? That is an enormously facile and reductive way to describe the disturbing, stylish, sexy, singular work of Jonny Negron, the breakout cartoonist of the year, but it at least points you in the right direction. No one’s ever thought to combine his muscular yet curiously dispassionate bullet-time approach to action and violence, his Yokoyama-esque spatial geometry, his attention to retrofuturistic fashion and style, his obvious love of the female body in all its shapes and sizes, and his ambient Lynchian terror; even if they had, it’d be tough to conceive of anyone building up his remarkable body of work in such a short period of time. Open up your Tumblr dashboard or crack an anthology (Thickness, Mould Map, Study Group, Smoke Signal, Negron and Jesse Balmer’s own Chameleon), and chances are good that Negron was the weirdest, best, most coldly beautiful thing in it. It’s like a raw, pure transmission from a fascinating brain.

6. The Wolf (Tom Neely, I Will Destroy You): Neely’s wordless, painted, at-times pornographic graphic novel feels like the successful final draft to various other prestigious projects’ false starts. It’s a far less didactic, more genuinely erotic attempt at high-art smut than Dave McKean’s Celluloid; a less self-conscious, more direct attempt at frankly depicting both the destructive and creative effects of sex on a relationship via symbolism than Craig Thompson’s Habibi; a blend of sex and horror and narrative and visual poetry and ugly shit and a happy ending that succeeds in each of these things where many comics choose to focus on only one or two.

5. The Cardboard Valise (Ben Katchor, Pantheon): Prep your time capsules, folks: You’d be hard pressed to find an artifact that better conveys our national predicament than Ben Katchor’s latest comic-strip collection, a series of intertwined vignettes created largely before the Great Recession and our political class’s utter failure to adequately address it, but which nonetheless appears to anticipate it. Its message — that blind nationalism is the prestige of the magic trick used by hucksters to financially and culturally ruin societies for their own profit — is delightfully easy to miss amid Katchor’s remarkable depictions of lost fads, trends, jobs, tourist attractions, and other detritus of the dying American Century. He’s the very most funnest Cassandra around.

4. Love from the Shadows (Gilbert Hernandez, Fantagraphics): I picture Gilbert Hernandez approaching his drawing board these days like Lawrence of Arabia approaching a Turkish convoy: “NO PRISONERS! NO PRISONERS!” In a year suffused with comics funneling pitch-black darkness through a combination of sex and horror, none were blacker, sexier, or more horrific than this gender-bending exploitation flick from Beto’s “Fritz-verse.” None also functioned as a rejection of the work that made its creator famous like this one did, either. Not a crowd-pleaser like his brother, but every bit as brilliant, every bit as fearless.

3. Garden (Yuichi Yokoyama, PictureBox): Like a theme park ride in comics form — with the strange events it chronicles themselves resembling a theme park ride — Yokoyama’s book is a breathtaking, breathless experience. Alongside his anonymous but extravagantly costumed non-characters, we simply go along for the ride, exploring Yokoyama’s prodigious, mysterious imagination as he concocts a seemingly endless stream of increasingly strange interfaces between man and machine, nature and artifice. As a metaphor for our increasingly out-of-control modern life it’s tough to top. As pure thrilling kinetic cartooning it’s equally tough to top.

2. Big Questions (Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly): Last year, I wrote that if the collected edition of Nilsen’s long-running parable of philosophically minded birds and the plane crash that turns their lives upside-down didn’t top my list whenever it came out, it must have been some kind of miracle year. Turns out that it was. But you’d pretty much have to create a flawless capstone to a thirty-year storyline of neer-peerless intelligence and artistry to top this colossal achievement. Nilsen’s painstaking, pointillist cartooning and ruthless examination of just how little regard the workings of the world have for any given life, human or otherwise, marks him as the best comics artist of his generation, and solidifies Big Questions‘ claim as the finest “funny animal” comic since Maus.

1. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 (Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Fantagraphics): Gilbert got his due elsewhere on my list, so let’s ignore his contribution to this issue, which advance the saga of his bosomy, frequently abused protagonist Fritz Martinez both on and off the sleazy silver screen. Instead, let’s add to the chorus praising Jaime’s “The Love Bunglers” as one of the greatest comics of all time, the point toward which one of the greatest comics series of all time has been hurtling for thirty years. In a single two-page spread Jaime nearly crushes both his lovable, walking-disaster main characters Maggie and Ray with the accumulated weight of all their decades of life, before emerging from beneath it like Spider-Man pushing up from out of that Ditko machinery. You can count the number of cartoonists able to wed style to substance, form to function, this seamlessly on one hand with fingers to spare. A masterpiece.


Comics Time: The Armed Garden and Other Stories

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

The Armed Garden and Other Stories
David B., writer/artist
Fantagraphics, 2011
112 pages, hardcover
$19.99
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About the only things impeding my completely unfettered enjoyment of and admiration for everything David B. achieves in The Armed Garden and Other Stories are familiarity — all three of the stories collected here appeared in the late, lamented Mome anthology at some point; and, because I am a morose and unpleasant person, the happy-ish ending — after a book of unremitting, near-ecstatic horror and slaughter, ending on a wistful up-note felt not so much unearned as simply unwanted.

But that’s it. Other than that, this collection is absolutely marvelous, a gorgeous and searing series of comics from an artist who earns the description “freakishly talented” as completely as anyone this side of his trans-Atlantic fellow in crafting dreamy/nightmarish parables of violent spirituality, Jim Woodring. These comics are just as lovely and just as frightening, and just as singularly the work of their creator and no other.

For one thing, they’re beyond gorgeous. B. has developed a form of expressionism that relies on curves rather than angles; simultaneously he’s fleshed out the stark intensity of his high-contrast black-and-white brush art with a lush duotone gold. The result is battle scenes that have the sharpness and savagery of a woodcut and the graphic simplicity of a Dark Ages tapestry, tied to prophetic visions and hedonistic reveries among the faithful peopled by characters you want to reach out and hug, so sensuous and inviting they seem. It’s almost unfair that the same guy who’s developed a visual language for battle that eloquently reduces its participants to interlocking graphic elements, a nigh-undifferentiated sea of swords, spears, grimaces, and gouts of blood, also maybe draws the sexiest pale naked women I’ve ever seen in a comic. But from a thematic perspective these stories are all about the way that religious fervor lends an air of all-consuming certainty and nobility to mankind’s most animalistic pursuits, from fucking to killing, so I suppose it’s only fitting.

Each of The Armed Garden‘s three stories — “The Veiled Prophet,” the title tale, and “The Drum Who Fell in Love” — is a transmission from the heightened reality of the legends surrounding various medieval religious cults, one from Arab Islam and two warring ones from European Christianity. As I mentioned when the first of these, “The Veiled Prophet,” hit our shores in Mome, they at first appear to all the world like an expressionistically drawn work of historical fiction, until the supernatural elements slowly take over. By focusing on the individual actors in each drama rather than the overall sweep of the history surrounding them, B. allows the reader to experience the awe and terror of divine/demonic intervention as a first-hand phenomenon; within the world of the stories, it’s as easy to swallow as are the more run of the mill sources of conflict with rival Popes and caliphs and so on. We get swept up in the madness and terror along with everyone else. And in all three cases, the fire of divinity burns too bright, consuming those who fan its flames. Provided you don’t buy its actual intervention in actual real life — and by situating each story within rejected, discredited cults, B. effectively removes the need to consider the more popular and lasting religions in this light — the message is clear: Belief in this shit, actualized into violence, will drive you as crazy and destroy you as completely as the real deal will. Gazing beneath the veil of the prophet, building your own paradise on earth, peering into the secrets of creation, communing with the dead, slaughtering out a path for God to tread — these things will kill you, blind you, drive you insane, leave you stranded with only the music of your mind for company. Ugly truths, presented as beautifully as is humanly possible.


Comics Time: Mome Vol. 22: Fall 2011

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Mome Vol. 22: Fall 2011
Zak Sally, Kurt Wolfgang, Jordan Crane, Chuck Forsman, Steven Weissman, Sara Edward-Corbett, Laura Park, Tom Kaczynski, Joe Kimball, Jesse Moynihan, Josh Simmons, The Partridge in the Pear Tree, Malachi Ward, Eleanor Davis, James Romberger, Derek Van Gieson, Michael Jada, Tim Lane, Nate Neal, Wendy Chin, Anders Nilsen, Tim Hensley, Lilli Carré, T. Edward Bak, Nick Drnaso, Joseph Lambert, Paul Hornschemeier, Sergio Ponchione, Nick Thorburn, Dash Shaw, Ted Stearn, Jim Rugg, Victor Kerlow, Noah Van Sciver, Gabrielle Bell, writers/artists
Eric Reynolds, editor
Fantagraphics, 2011
240 pages
$19.99
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For today’s Comics Time review, please visit The Comics Journal.


Comics Time: The Man Who Grew His Beard

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The Man Who Grew His Beard
Olivier Schrauwen, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, 2011
112 pages
$19.99
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I love the disconnect between how big and broad this substantial softcover feels in your hands — at 8.5″ x 10.25 ” it’s just wider enough than your average graphic novel for you to notice it — and how tiny the little mustachioed men who people most of its stories feel on those big pages, even when they’re blown up big enough to occupy most of that real estate. It makes it feel even more alien than it already does, like you’re reading a giant’s minicomic.

I don’t know how he does it, whether it’s something to do with how he puts his lines down on paper or some treatment he gives them afterwards, but Flemish cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen makes images that look like…like they’ve been transmitted from a great distance, both temporally and spatially. He’s playing with style and design that looks like it predates the Great War, and his line and coloring has a hazy feel to it that could be a copy of a copy of a copy, or the unlikely discovery of some microscopic cartooning culture blown up to many times its original size. There’s something off about it just as surely as there’s something off about Al Columbia’s rotted vintage visuals, only here that off-ness is used in service of a comic surrealism rather than a horrific one. He can stick it to the foibles of the 19th-century culture whose style he’s swiping quite effectively — savagely satirizing Belgium’s bloody misadventures in Africa, parodying the West’s penchant for physiognometric pseudoscience with a look at what your hairstyle says about your mental capacity, lampooning the world-conquering bravado of transcontinental rail, and so on. But he’s just as likely to seize upon some strange effect or idea and run with it as hard and as fast as he can — nearly literally, in once case, in a strip consisting more or less solely of a guy running to catch a train for as long and as far as the train would have taken him to begin with. Elsewhere, he shatters sexual idylls into a fractal feedback loop or draws its participants as lounging subjects of some kind of weird cubist stained-glass art style; portrays a man who can paint things into existence by trotting him through a series of guffaw-inducing mock-heroic poses, as if his miraculous creative abilities were only secondary proof of his awesomeness compared to his theatrical, bare-chested machismo; and uses bright color and titanically ornate architecture against bland ones to paint a portrait of a catatonic man’s rich and adventurous interior life of fun with a beautiful woman and a beloved child, in a story that ended up being actually quite moving. These are deeply strange short stories, centered on ideas and effects I’m not sure I’d have come up with even with the proverbial infinite number of monkeys at my disposal; even in this short-story-saturated alternative comics climate, there’s nothing else like his gestalt of finely calibrated nonsense. It’s good to see that comics can do things you’d never think to ask of them in the first place.


Comics Time: Mome Vol. 21: Winter 2011

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Mome Vol. 21: Winter 2011
Sergio Ponchione, The Partridge in the Pear Tree, Josh Simmons, Dash Shaw, Steven Weissman, Kurt Wolfgang, Sara Edward-Corbett, Nicolas Mahler, Tom Kaczynski,
Josh Simmons, Jon Adams, Nate Neal, T. Edward Bak, Michael Jada, Derek Van Gieson, Nick Thorburn, Lilli Carré, writers/artists
Eric Reynolds, editor
Fantagraphics, 2011
112 pages
$14.99
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It was the best of Momes, it was the worst of Momes. Alright, that’s not quite accurate, and not quite fair, either. But this unwittingly penultimate issue of Fantagraphics’ long-running alternative-comics anthology — page for page the longest-running such enterprise in American history! — is a hit-or-miss affair in the mighty Mome manner. In the miss column you can place Sergio Ponchione’s bombastic, cartoony fantasy about an imaginary childhood friend brought to life; there’s really not much more to it than that description would indicate. Ditto Kurt Wolfgang’s next “Nothing Eve” chapter, which continues to work the “people still act pretty much the same even though the end of the world is coming” buttons it’s been mashing since issue #1. T. Edward Bak’s “Wild Man” remains awkwardly paced due to its split-up narrative captions; Nicolas Mahler’s autobio strip remains of limited interest to people not Nicolas Mahler; Lilli Carré’s contribution is nicely colored in reds and blues but otherwise insubstantial.

A few contributions are both hit and miss at once. Sara Edward-Corbett’s near-wordless reverie involving inanimate objects romping around the outside of a house comes across more inscrutable than mysterious, but at the same time her crosshatching and linework are an absolute marvel, and she’s playing with forms (and with form) in a fashion reminiscent of John Hankiewicz, if not as successful. Steven Weissman’s deadpan “Barack Hussein Obama” strips fall flat when they merely parody the rhythms of four-panel gag comics, but spring to surreal and oddly scathing life when he injects a healthy dose of the sinister supernatural into them. I’ve never quite cottoned to the way Jon Adams’s razor-thin line and labored-over character renderings sit against the large white expanses of his pages, and his writing feels overwrought to me, but he does give his blackly humorous tale of a hunting expedition gone bad a laugh-out-loud visual punchline. And Nate Neal’s caveman morality play makes much better use of his meaty cartooning than his lukewarm slice-of-lifers do, though the conceit of gibberish dialogue from the cavepeople conceals more than it illuminates.

So that leaves the hits, and they’re strong enough to make the book worth checking out. Dash Shaw continues his seemingly ongoing series of adaptations of “reality” programming, this time an excerpt from a making-of documentary about Jurassic Park; he has a really sharp and off-kilter eye for people observing and commenting on their own behavior for a camera, and his transition from talking heads to full documentary “footage” is a gleeful one. Nick Thorburn’s take on Benjamin Franklin, a first-person monologue in which Ben lets us in on a dirty little secret, is anachronistically absurd (“In Seventeen-Sumthin’-Er-Other, right before I invented electricity and just after I’d sired my illegitimate son, I received an e-mail from Lord Sandwich about comin’ to London to take part in this new secret society known as ‘The Hellfire Club.’”) and very funny, with a great undergroundy character design for Franklin himself. Derek Van Gieson’s murky World War II period piece continues to stun from page to page. Tom Kaczynski examines home ownership during terminal-stage capitalism as only he can, casting it as a catalyst for powerful erotic and apocalyptic impulses and proving himself once again to be one of the most stealthily sexy cartoonists working today. “Stealthy” isn’t a word I’d use for Josh Simmons, but he doesn’t need it: His weird psychedelic fantasia on racism “The White Rhinoceros” is as bold and bulldozing as the giant slugs who stampede across its pages, and the elliptically concluded short story “Mutant” ends with an image of an enraged creature in the form of a human female, her nude body shadowed but covered in glistening sweat, that may as well symbolize the workings of Simmons’s entire brain. You gotta take the rough to find the diamonds.


Comics Time: Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot
Jacques Tardi, writer/artist
Adapted from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Fantagraphics, 2011
104 pages, hardcover
$18.99
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Fantagraphics keeps churning out lovely translated editions of the work of French comics master Jacques Tardi at a truly admirable clip. This is the fourth in what I would consider the “main” Tardi/Fanta line of slim hardcovers, distinguished by no-nonsense Adam Grano cover designs that juxtapose key sequences from Tardi’s ink-soaked black-and-white interior art with bold slashes of color and block-caps for title and credit information. If there’s a better mesh of form and function in comics right now this side of, well, Fanta’s similarly designed Love and Rockets digests, I’d sure love to see it. In much the same vein as Tardi’s previously released adaptation of a crime novel by author Jean-Patrick Manchette, West Coast Blues, Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot is a grimly economical story of a man on the run from killers, with bursts of violence that slash in out of nowhere. In other words, you can judge a book by its cover.

The two books have much in common beyond their common language of men hunted by hitmen across the length and breadth of France. Both protagonists are bizarrely taciturn about their predicaments, almost to the point where you’re left to wonder if there’s some sort of mental disability involved. Sniper‘s Martin Terrier (great name) at least has the excuse of being a mercenary and assassin to explain his flat affect where killing’s concerned, as opposed to West Coast Blues‘ wrong-man family-guy George. But he more than makes up for this in his personal life, a disaster area predicated entirely on his deeply weird belief that the women with whom he involves himself can switch their affections for him on and off after years of one setting or the other based solely on his say-so. The woman for whom he “risks it all” — Tardi and Manchette’s interpretation of this trope ladles those sneer quotes all over it — is an equally weird and unpleasant character, ricocheting from emotion to emotion when Terrier’s intrusion into the life she’d been leading without him violently upends her status quo, until finally settling on some weird sneering sex-hungry brand of derision for him and his life of crime and adventure.

In all honesty, these emotional and behavioral patterns are so difficult to recognize even when allowing for the remove between a hired gun and a comics critic that they get in the way of Tardi and Manchette’s underlying indictment of society’s casual savagery, and its propensity for covering up that savagery with bullshit that pins it on The Other Side. But upon reflection, I wonder if these terrible people’s wholly alien way of interacting with the world isn’t just the writing equivalent of Tardi’s nimble, scribbled line and sooty blacks — a heightened reality in which things are rendered at their loosest, darkest, ugliest, and weirdest at all times. God knows both creators can rigorously focus when they want: Manchette squeezes a quite believable custody battle between Terrier and his now-ex girlfriend over a beloved cat into the proceedings, while Tardi’s backgrounds and lighting effects are a realist’s dream and his action sequences and set-pieces are choreographed tighter than a drum. The absurdist demeanors may prevent everything from gelling as well as they might have done, but overall the book delivers a fastball to your face so hard that you barely have time to notice that some of the stitches need straightening.