Monday, February 13, 2012

Top Fifteen Comic Books of 2011

Alt-comics are far from dead, as any number of cartoonists have stubbornly stuck to the form despite the fact that the market has shifted over to graphic novels. Below are the best I read from 2011 that resemble traditional comic books in format and/or periodicity. It should be noted that I still haven't seen the most recent issue of Optic Nerve, which would no doubt make this list. I'm doing separate lists of minicomics and graphic novels this year, but I'd stack most of this list up against anything from the long-form lists.

1. Love & Rockets: New Stories #4, by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. Gilbert's stories are typically excellent in this issue, as he manages a certain luridness in one story that brings sexuality to the fore, and goes the other direction in a more oblique, subtle story. Of course, the story that got everyone buzzing was the second half of Jaime's "The Love Bunglers", which is an ending for this thirty-year cycle of stories--and one where Jaime sticks the landing with authority. He's had endings before (most notably at the end of volume 1 of Love & Rockets, when Maggie and Hopey ride off together in a police vehicle) and they've had their own sense of power and authority, but it's the way Jaime has become a more subtle, restrained and mature storyteller in the last decade that made this simple story so utterly compelling.

2. Lose #3, by Michael DeForge. Here's my original review, part of a larger article on DeForge. This is DeForge's most ambitious comic yet, centering around the post-apocalyptic, funny animal slice-of-life story "Dog 2070". DeForge's ear for painfully funny detail and awkwardness combined with his desire to create a feeling of claustrophobia in his reader make this an uncomfortable read, yet an incredibly compelling one. The rest of the issue features a mix of gags, shock, body horror and anthropomorphism taken to unusual places. It still feels like he's just now getting warmed up, as he transitions over to longer and more involved pieces.

3. Pope Hats #2, by Ethan Rilly. Here's my original review. Rilly’s slice of life story about a young woman who works at a law firm is a model of subtlety and restraint, but he also knows when to tap comics’ more cartoonish well for comedic effect. It's also one of the more handsome and well-designed comics I've ever seen, one that could easily stand with any of the dense, classic alt-comics of the 80s and early 90s.

4. Ganges #4, by Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics). If Ganges #3 was Huizenga's phenomenology of sleep, then this issue is a phenomenology of hypnagogica--the state of dreaming while awake. We continue to follow Huizenga's everyman character Glenn Ganges in his attempts to fall asleep, which were thwarted at the end of the previous issue by his mind rebelling against his body and jolting him awake. This issue goes deeper into that mind-body duality conflict, only reality becomes more flexible as Glenn enters that strange, wonderful state where we slip in and out of dream states rapidly while never quite reaching full sleep. Once again, Huizenga's use of formal elements is stunning, clever and meta without being precious. For example, when Glenn tries to fall asleep by reading the most opaque book possible, he starts to wish the book had diagrams or drawings--and of course, both appear in every panel. His dream state is represented in classic comics form--as a squiggle, asterisk and other scribbles that appear near his head. Later, when he contemplates all of the days of his life that he's forgotten, he creates a calendar grid that looks suspiciously like a highly elaborate comics page. Indeed, as Glenn slips into an actual dream at the end (where the Men In Black come to investigate his "time traveling" that occurs as a result of him drinking a special blend of coffee), Huizenga uses the end flap to "flip" through the pages of that story without actually making any of its word legible. It's a clever response to the same technique being used to introduce the issue, where the "endless night" and his bustling thoughts coalesce into coherent thoughts. Huizenga's work is restrained and even playful in its approach but wildly ambitious in terms of its content, and he continues to successfully mine work left untouched by other cartoonists.

5. Eye Of The Majestic Creature #5, by Leslie Stein. This issue picks up right after where Stein's recent book published by Fantagraphics leaves off, though with a substantially different approach. The book is still about the life of Stein's surrogate Larrybear, working as a shopgirl in New York City, living in a roach-infested apartment and spending time with her anthropomorphic musical instruments. What's different is that the book's narrative captions are all taken from Theodore Drieser's 1900 novel Sister Carrie. The only similarity between the two works is that both concern a young woman trying to make it alone in a big city, but the circumstances surrounding the protagonists of those works is quite different. Everything about this issue is dialed down from previous issues: emotions are more restrained, the magical realism aspects of the story are far more matter-of-fact, and the entire comic takes on a more plaintive, solemn tone.

The connections that Stein makes between Dreiser and her own story are fascinating, especially when Dreiser starts talking about the bustle of city streets and the loneliness of city life. Larrybear is a person adrift, desperately searching for an activity to give meaning to her daily hustle and bustle. She finds it in the art of "sand counting", a hilarious metaphor for any obsessive hobby that can be considered art--like comics. In many respects, this single issue is a recapitulation of the entire series to date, only done from a different angle. Instead of being dominated by Larrybear's interior monologue, we instead get Stein selecting Dreiser quotes to comment on her life. The comic is faster-paced than the more languid and tangent-filled stories of earlier issues, with days and weeks going by as Larrybear goes through winter and into the first glimpses of spring. Stein here is measuring the weight of days and weeks on her stand-in, the debilitating passage of time in a life desperately spent looking for meaning and purpose. Larrybear manages to find that balance, to find a way to survive and thrive in the big, impersonal city, even as she comes to terms with the way she's becoming more removed from her anthropomorphic friends. Those friends are symbols of her imagination but also a symbol for abandoning music in favor of a different pursuit, one that's far more solitary. As always, Stein's art is stunningly detailed in its exacting stippling style but fluid and loose in terms of how she draws her characters. The innovations in this issue point to Stein becoming a truly significant and mature artist as she continues to evolve in daring ways.

6. Pornhounds #2, by Sharon Lintz and various artists. Lintz writes a series of vignettes that start out detailing life working as an editor/writer at a porn magazine and shifts into her detailing her experiences as a cancer patient. She varies tone with great sensitivity and efficacy, going from ridiculous laughs to moments of poetry that tie into repeating motifs but do so with a light touch. Her artistic collaborators range from solid to great, with Nic Breutzman's work standing out.

7. Dark Tomato #1, by Sakura Maku. This is the debut book from Austin English's new publishing concern Domino Books, and it's an auspicious start for him. Maku is firmly in the Immersive camp of comics, mixing traditional narrative, collage, lettering for decorative purposes and poetic language to create a dizzying array of images that nonetheless draw in the reader's eye. The story concerns a subway train driver in New York who slips into and out of hallucinatory, dreamlike experiences that she can't quite explain. Make fuses Snow White, Prince, high fashion, and the energy of a cityscape that alternates between piercing dissonance and remarkably fluid harmony. Indeed, if one can describe a comic as "musical", this comic certainly fits that bill. It's not just because of the frequent use of song lyrics, but rather it's due to the way Maku uses an almost staccato pattern of images to create rhythm while her figure work is sort of the tune--scribbly and liquid on the page. Maku flips foreground and background, dreaming and waking, and the mundane & the fantastic--often in the span of a single panel. Despite demanding that the reader approach the comic on its terms, Dark Tomato rewards the reader with a cohesive, fascinating narrative that is just beginning with this first issue.

8. Hate Annual #9, by Peter Bagge. This was Bagge's first feature-length Buddy Bradley story in years, and it's a doozy. Buddy, Lisa and young Harold visit Lisa's parents in a story called "Hell", and Bagge truly pulls out all the stops in depicting extreme familial weirdness. His dialogue is as sharp as ever, his line is quite lively and his uncanny ability to depict the creeping weirdness of suburbia is even more disturbing than in the initial run of New Jersey stories in Hate. The scene where Buddy attends a weird "party" with Lisa's cousin gets at the heart of that underlying creepiness, where a lot of folks get continually weirder as they lurch into middle age. Throw in a bonus strip about Belgium (?) and this is a wonderful throwback to the early 90s.

9. Too Dark To See, by Julia Gfrorer. Here's my original review. This is a bleak, terrifying story about betrayal, animal instincts, sexual violation and paranoia. It's a true horror comic in the sense that the raw ugly emotions of its protagonists are only highlighted by the unexplained and disturbing succubus angle of the comic. There's also a jet-black sense of humor in Gfrorer's comics that heightens the grimness of the story all the more.

10. The Accidental Salad, by Joe Decie. My original review can be found as part of a larger survey here. This is deadpan autobio absurdity with a restrained line and razor-sharp wit. Decie does do some more naturalistic strips about his wife and son as well, but he's at his best when he's at his silliest.

11. Tales Designed To Thrizzle #7, by Michael Kupperman. Here's my original review. Kupperman's "Quincy, M.E." story in this issue is a tour-de-force of twisting narrative structures and just plain crazy silliness. Kupperman's art has become increasingly bland as his aesthetic references have changed from 1920s comic strips to 1950s comic books, forcing the reader to perform double-takes at the crazy juxtapositions he creates. If his comics aren't as visually exhausting and exciting as they once were, he still provides an avalanche of ideas and jokes for the reader to sort through.

12. Blammo #7, by Noah Van Sciver. Here's my original review. Van Sciver is willing to try anything in his one-man anthology series, from different sorts of genre stories to varying his line in interesting ways. It's that willingness to constantly stretch and challenge himself that's his greatest strength as a cartoonist, even if individual examples of his storytelling aren't his best. His trademark grime and sweat visuals suffuse this comic, even some of the more sentimental or sweet stories, creating a uniting aesthetic for this artist who continues to get better from project to project.

13. Passage, by Tessa Brunton (Sparkplug Comic Books). This is a moving, lovely comic about rites-of-passage and shame. This slice-of-life story is fascinating because it starts out as a typical story narrated by a knowing teen regarding the embarrassing hijinks of her parents and the weird behavior of her brother but turns into something quite different by the end. Growing up with quirky parents in a cluttered house made the protagonist self-conscious, but she reveals that the shame she felt had an emotionally crippling effect on her, one that destroyed her own sense of self-worth despite her parents' attempts at boosting her self-esteem. The final page of the book reveals a moment of hope and one without shame a little later in her life, creating a sense of serenity that is an obvious touchstone. The cluttered nature of Brunton's line is a perfect complement to the life her protagonist lives, adding power and depth to the narrative.
14. 2012, by Sam Gaskin. This is Gaskin's best work to date. This episodic comic about various end-of-the-world myths and predictions has the rhythms of excellent long-form improv, with unexpected and funny callbacks that build up to its climax. Gaskin loves to incorporate junky pop culture into his comics (the Rush Hour films) along with myths, sports, music, comic strip characters and fantasy tropes. His line has become much more assured and in service to his jokes than it was before, when it was more of a scribble. Unlike DeForge, who takes his genre work seriously in his comics, Gaskin goes strictly for laughs, albeit frequently disturbing and uncomfortable laughs.

15. Bad Breath Comics #4, by Josh Juresko. This is a strange, wonderful comic that also feels like it could have come off a rack in 1988. Juresko is clearly influenced by EC Comics and silver age cartoonists like Steve Ditko, but it's all by way of MAD. There's a hilarious stiltedness to his drawings that is all part of the bone-dry, deadpan humor at work in this comic, even as Juresko throws around silly puns. "America Vs History" is a bizarre "visit with an expert" kind of story that fades into a professor who plans to tell the reader about history, but is interrupted by a younger guy who only wants to watch "a movie from today! Need hot special effects. That's tight". As if that wasn't ridiculous enough, another man shows up to tell the professor that the US must stay the course in Afghanistan, only to be gently rebuked by the professor. This strip is a hilarious parody of political comics whose 1950s style art creates a dizzying bit of cognitive dissonance. "Stretch of Road" starts off as a "where has everyone gone" story in the vein of the Twilight Zone that concludes with a perfectly innocent explanation that amusingly deflates all expectations--both in terms of genre and simple plot tension. The comic is jam-packed with such weirdness, with Juresko's tone and line the dominant features of the book. Any fan of humor comics should seek it out.

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