This was one of the best-ever years to be a fan of comics, no matter one's tastes or interests. Fans of classic comics delighted in the first volumes of deluxe collections of Popeye, Terr'ble Thompson, Dick Tracy and others. We also saw the newest volumes of Peanuts, Krazy Kat and Gasoline Alley, just to name a few. A new Jules Feiffer collection was released as a handsome hardcover. Fans of manga also saw tons of volumes printed in English, both originals and translations. Several big publishers jumped into the game with varied and interesting output, led by Pantheon and First Second. Alison Bechdel went from cult favorite to getting Time's nod for book of the year with FUN HOME. Top Shelf gambled and won with LOST GIRLS, which has been a huge commercial success and has garnered a lot of mainstream media attention. 2006 was also the year of the anthology. FLIGHT continues to be a huge commercial success, but the new volume of KRAMER'S ERGOT was the must-have item of the year for art-comics fans. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of the comics that I found the most enjoyable, most challenging, funniest, most thought-provoking or some combination thereof. These are the books that were the most sublime in the truest sense of the word--creating an experience that is difficult to capture with language, but one that I feel compelled to at least attempt to describe. I'm not going to include classic strip collections on this list; that will be a separate column. I'm also excluding minis from this list; while I've read a lot of good ones I don't think I've read enough to make a properly exhaustive list. This list is meant to capture the breadth of my comics reading experiences for the year, with some surprises along with the usual suspects. There are a few collections here and there that I haven't read in their new format (like Kevin Huizenga's CURSES) and some well-reviewed books that I haven't had a chance to read at all (LOST GIRLS, FUN HOME), so bear that in mind as you read one man's list:
MOME (Fantagraphics). I just read the most recent volume (Winter 2007) and the series only continues to grow stronger. After a couple of issues of trying to find its footing, editors Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth have found a perfect balance of the original core contributors and selected newcomers. The most recent issue has an autobiographical piece from French comics giant Lewis Trondheim that is a perfect fit. Tim Hensley's hilariously absurd stories of teenage millionaire Wally Gropius get better and better--the deadpan images of girls literally killing themselves in order to get his attention, only to have a girl attract him by knowing obscure national anthems, combine 4-color flatness with pure dada. This is the book to buy if you want an understanding of the pulse of the work being done in art comics with a narrative bent.
AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS & TRUE STORIES (Yale Press). This is the book to buy if you're a student of cartooning interested in getting better, of if you're new to comics and looking for a comprehensive & instructively designed survey of the medium's possibilities. A true labor of love from editor Ivan Brunetti.
ASTHMA, by John Hankiewicz (Sparkplug Comic Books). I have a review of this in the works, but this is comics-as-poetry. Not in the sense of images set to verse, but in the way that images can create their own rhythm, the way that narratives can be formed out of the juxtaposition of images creating their own logic. Hankiewicz has astonishing control over both his line and his use of language, and that sharpness demands a reader's attention even if it can be difficult to crack the logic of some of the narratives. This collection displays his virtuosity from beginning to end, showing off a variety of styles and storytelling choices.
THE MOTHER'S MOUTH, by Dash Shaw (Alternative). From beginning to end, this was the most absorbing and compelling narrative from the enormously talented Shaw. He's a risk-taker and challenges both himself and the reader, and it all came together beautifully in this book.
LUCKY, by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly). This is autobiographical work at its driest and wittiest peaks. The subtlety of her line combined with the sharpness of her insights makes this a compelling read despite the mundane nature of some of her experiences.
GIRL STORIES, by Lauren Weinstein (Henry Holt). This book is a smorgasbord of lurid, hilarious and embarrassing details of adolescence, told with an array of clever techniques and bold storytelling choices. Weinstein combines an idiosyncratic sense of style, a demented sense of humor and a narrative voice that is unerringly honest.
DUNGEON, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and others (NBM).Trondheim is the rare artist who can turn out intelligent material with mainstream appeal as well as more experimental & personal comics with equal facility. DUNGEON, co-written with fellow French titan Sfar, manages to tell a farcical sword & sorcery epic that manages to simultaneously to mock and show affection for the form. The stories, told funny animal-style in the tradition of Carl Barks, are hilarious & violent but also very human. Please check out this excellent article for the French version of these books.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR 1-4, by Harvey Pekar & various (DC/Vertigo). Our man had an interesting graphic novel released this year (EGO & HUBRIS), marred slightly by the dull art. However, his new miniseries from Vertigo was mostly dynamite. This is old-school AMERICAN SPLENDOR, going back to his original self-published format of quotidian observations after several years of deviating from this with Dark Horse. The series includes old guard illustrators Dean Haspiel & Josh Neufeld along with some newer names, including Gilbert Hernandez, Hunt Emerson and Eddie Campbell. Not every collaborator fits with Pekar's narrative style, but even the failures are noble ones as Harv was able to work with a real budget and work with a new set of artists.
THE SQUIRREL MOTHER STORIES, by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics). If I was forced to select just one book off the list, this would be it. This is a pitch-perfect collection of stories, attractively presented, from an artist at her creative peak.
KLEZMER, by Joann Sfar (First Second). Sfar's expressionist coloring and vivid characterization make this book a treat. I love his long digressions and tangents most of all, along with his explorations of music and the camaraderie of musicians.
SCHIZO #4 by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics). Years in the making, the latest collection of strips from this master cartoonist was worth the wait. The strips range from biographies of individuals whom Brunetti felt some affinity for to straight autobiography to philosophical contemplation to nihilistic farce. Brunetti is a master of design and his palette choices are exquisite. This is a beautiful, hilarious, existential howl that is nonetheless much less bleak than his earlier work and much more refined. I can't think of many artists with Brunetti's chops who are more willing to experiment, change styles and branch out, nor an artist who clearly thinks as much about comics and their possibilities.
GET A LIFE and MAYBE LATER, by Charles Berberian & Philippe Dupuy (Drawn & Quarterly). GET A LIFE is the long-awaited collections of the earliest Monsieur Jean stories from these two collaborators. It's pitch-perfect slice-of-life stories that are funny, low-key and expressive. In my world, this would be the model for "new mainstream" stories. MAYBE LATER is the cartoon journal the duo kept during the making of one of their comics, and it's a wonderfully revealing look at the artist's struggle. Both of them are warm & witty, but I would especially recommend the former book as a "gateway" comic for new readers.
MINE TONIGHT, by Trevor Alixopolous (Sparkplug Comic Books). Alixopolous made the leap from doing some interesting minicomics to an ambitious long-form work, combining politics, noir elements and memoir. It's an appealing and unique mix, and his loose style keeps things lively and energetic.
THE LEFT BANK GANG and MEOW, BABY! by Jason (Fantagraphics). I'm planning a larger profile of this artist for 2007, but suffice it to say that his deadpan sense of humor and wild (but understated) imagination made him a favorite of mine with his very first comic translated into English, HEY...WAIT! Since then, he's unleashed a series of comics in various genres, all told with his anthropomorphic dogs, birds and cats (and Death). MEOW, BABY! is a collection of gag strips, often starring familiar faces like Darth Vader, the Terminator and Elvis in ridiculous situations. Charles Schulz is obviously a huge influence on the timing of his jokes and the body language of his characters. THE LEFT BANK GANG depicts Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald and other ex-pats in 1920's Paris--except that instead of being authors or poets, they're all struggling comics artists. Jason starts with that high concept and veers into a Tarantino-esque caper midway through, with brilliantly fractured storytelling and points of view that converge elegantly at the end. This was one of the most satisfying and amusing reads of the year by an artist who can pretty much do no wrong.
WE ARE ON OUR OWN, by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly). I've been reading the World War II reminiscences of this animator since she began publishing them in the MONKEYSUIT anthology. Her lush pencils depict painful, vivid memories and experience with just the right amount of distance needed. This book is about her mother doing whatever it took to avoid going to a concentration camp, and miraculously finding her father again after the war.
LA PERDIDA, by Jessica Abel (Pantheon). After a career spent specializing in short stories that gave us just a snapshot of 20-something youths, Abel's first long-form story takes some surprising twists and turns. At first, the story seemed like an ex-pat version of her usual story as a young woman named Carla goes to Mexico in order to find herself. Very quickly, however the story takes some unusual twists and turns as it becomes a suspense thriller.
BUT I LIKE IT, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics). Sacco is one of my favorites as the man who brought a form of gonzo journalism to comics. Sacco goes deeper than soundbites as he lives in the community he's covering, telling the stories of those he meets. His presence in this story is less a matter of egotism than acknowledging the perspective of an outsider, and that presence is always self-deprecating. This collection of strips takes a look at Sacco's earlier days following around a band and drawing their adventures, as well as his experiences living off of doing poster work. My favorite bits revolve around his love of the Rolling Stones and the experience of being a fan. One doesn't usually associate Sacco with humor (other than short bits of comic relief), so it's interesting to see him use such a broad approach here.
PROJECT: ROMANTIC, by various (AdHouse). Third in a series from editor and publisher Chris Pitzer, this PROJECT was my favorite. Perhaps it's because this anthology was free of the genre restrictions of the first two (robots/sci-fi and superheroes), but there's a bold exuberance to the entries here. Joel Priddy's shorts about a husband-and-wife pair of adventurers/mad scientists are especially amusing. I'll be reviewing this in more depth in an upcoming column.
TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #2 AND #3, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics). Kupperman holds the title of Funniest Man in Comics. Getting a regular venue for his brand of lushly-illustrated absurdity is thrilling news for fans of humor comics. All hail Pagus!
FORTY HOUR MAN, by Steve Beaupre & Steve Lafler (Manx Media). This collection of strips from BUZZARD didn't get a whole lot of notice, which is a shame. It's one of the funniest accounts of workingman tedium I've ever read, especially the ways in which our hero tries to liven up said tedium.
ART D'ECCO, by Roger & Andrew Langridge (Fantagraphics). I mention elsewhere that this was a great year for humor comics. Roger Langridge's line is so beautiful it hurts, while brother Andrew jam-packs this volume with puns on the obscure and familiar. The dense layering of jokes in this collection rewards multiple readings.
COMIC ART #8, edited by Todd Hignite (Buenaventura Press). There were a number of outstanding publications this year about comics and comics history. COMICS COMICS is remarkable, as was the Harvey Kurtzman book from Fantagraphics (both to be reviewed soon), just to name two. COMIC ART instantly became one of the best publications about comics the moment it was first published. Hignite chose to celebrate what he thought was great about comics, be they famous or obscure. His in-depth approach, sharp design and amazing visuals made each issue an event. Now paired with Alvin Buenaventura's resources and vision, this issue took the concept to another level. I'll have much more to say about this book soon, but the Richard McGuire article and supplement by Seth alone are worth the cover price.
The Ignatz line by various (Fantagraphics). In many other years, the Ignatz line would be hailed as sure-fire greats. In a year as strong as this one, they've fallen a bit under the radar. The concept behind them is simple: in partnership with Igort's Coconino Press, Fantagraphics is putting out oversized individual issues of comics by both American & European artists. Some of the Americans include Gilbert Hernandez, Kevin Huizenga & Richard Sala. David B, Igort and Gipi are some of the Europeans. Each individual issue is a beautiful, striking art object. I'm currently working on a comprehensive look at all 18 issues to date. These comics represent a perfect marriage of style and substance. If pressed to pick a single series, I'd take Igort's BAOBAB, a sprawling, dreamlike story that spans two continents.
DRAWN & QUARTERLY SHOWCASE #4, by various (Drawn & Quarterly). This one has one of Gabrielle Bell's best stories, an interesting entry from Martin Cendreda and a gloriously intricate Halloween strip from Dan Zettwoch, another emerging talent from the St. Louis area. All three got their start (and still make) mini-comics, and the care they show for their craft is strongly evident here. The showcase is sort of MOME's cousin, designed to showcase up and coming artists or artists not familiar to North American readers.
HOTWIRE, by various (Fantagraphics). In a year with many serious and distinguished anthologies, it was fun to see a collection filled with insolence and flat-out weirdness. This anthology seemed to be overlooked by many, but it's worth seeking out.
KRAMER'S ERGOT #6, by various (Buenaventura Press). This is advanced placement art comics reading. Editor Sammy Harkham pushes the envelope of narrative with his selections, intuitively knowing what fits and what doesn't in the one comic that most accurately reflects avant-garde comics of its era. I've only read about half of this mammoth volume so far, but it's every bit as challenging, frustrating, intriguing, infuriating and exhilarating as breakthrough issues 4 and 5.
ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #17 by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly). Ware is the heavyweight champ of comics design, from panel and page composition to an exquisite use of color. This issue features the next installment of the adventures of his sad-sack characters Rusty Brown & Chalky White. We also get an installment of Branford, The Best Bee In The World, yet another put-upon Ware character. My favorite thing about the issue (aside from the gorgeous design), is Ware's insertion of himself as a high-school art teacher who gets high with his students and yearns to be cool.
LOVE & ROCKETS by Los Bros. Hernandez (Fantagraphics). I assume you're all reading Marc Sobel's column reviewing L&R from beginning to end, yes? I'm pleased to inform you that Beto & Xaime are better than ever. Jaime in particular has taken his work to another level; his "Day By Day With Hopey" was my favorite serial of the year. Gilbert has gotten a bit more esoteric with his long-running characters, but their stories came to an end this year. In his spare time, he unleashed the excellent new graphic novel SLOTH from Vertigo. It's easy to take them for granted after so many years of excellence and innovation, but both are still at the height of their powers.
LET US BE PERFECTLY CLEAR, by Paul Hornschemeier (Fantagraphics). A collection of short stories, humor and conceptual bits and pieces from an artist just entering his prime. Since he's mostly associated with downbeat, meditative stories, it's a welcome change of pace to see him go for laughs and cringes here.
DORK #11, by Evan Dorkin (Slave Labor Graphics). Another top humorist checks in with an impressive all-gag collection. The sheer hard work evident on every page and in every gag is palpable--Dorkin always goes to extra mile to get a laugh.
THE MAGIC WHISTLE #10, by Sam Henderson (Alternative). 2006 was a great year for fans of humor. Not only was there new work from Kupperman and Dorkin, but a huge new issue from the master of crude drawings & conceptual punchlines. Henderson is almost a humor theorist, fascinated with what goes into a joke, what makes it funny, and how to subvert reader expectations.
BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006 by various (Houghton-Mifflin). A fine snapshot of the best naturalistic stories from 2005, as selected by Anne Elizabeth Moore & Harvey Pekar. Very different in intent and feel from Brunetti's anthology, and a welcome annual addition.
THE VAGABONDS #2 by Josh Neufeld (Alternative). One of the more thoughtful and clever voices in comics, this was the all-collaboration issue of his new series.
CHICKEN WITH PLUMS, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon). While I enjoyed the first volume of PERSEPOLIS as much as anyone, I thought her chops weren't up to the rendering or design in the sequel. Her David B impersonation just wasn't accomplished enough to get across her story effectively. EMBROIDERIES was a nice bit of fluff but was really more of the same. However, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS is a huge leap forward. The structure of the story, about a musician who wants to die, is intricate and elegant. Her art is more refined and confident. While she probably got more acclaim than she deserved for PERSEPOLIS, I hope that this latest effort isn't overlooked.
110PERCENT, by Tony Consiglio (Top Shelf). Another longtime laborer in the minicomics trenches, Consiglio's first official graphic novel plays to his strengths: memorably broad characters, a ridiculous but humane premise, and a touch of pathos. Add to that his breezy storytelling style and comic timing, and you have one of 2006's hidden treasures.