Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Best Comics of 2012: Who, What, Ware

A factual and representative selection of first-rate items with images and words printed on pages in formats and languages, expounded upon in truthful and intermittently flirty prose. Contains Jarmusch, Kricfalusi, Nabokov, some Berlin Wall debris, and the Holy Werewolf of Jesus Christ. Does not contain Hawkeye.

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10 [ten] | [dis] | [tseːn] 10

Did you know the Christ child had his own werewolf soldier?

I once wrote a story titled “Monday,” in which God, resting on the seventh day, got bored, decided to live on this fresh new world He had just created out of whole cloth, and mingled with the locals. By Monday afternoon—His day had started with His alarm clock, via TV on the Radio's “King Eternal,” warning Him to “cover your balls, cuz we swing kung-fu”—, He was so frustrated and annoyed that He started smiting people, grew back into His full Godness, and, finally, grabbed this fucking Earth and threw it into the sun, where—apologies to Kurt Vonnegut—it sizzled and popped. End of story.

All of which is to say, Christian creation myths can be a lot more fun to play with than people give them credit for. Reprobus, for instance, the gorgeous graphic-novel debut of Kassel art-school alumnus Markus Färber, has no sizzling and popping, but comes with its own share of religiously instructive mayhem. Färber here adapts and interprets the legend of St. Christopher, a. k. a. the Christ Bearer, a. k. a. Reprobus, who in some accounts is described as a dog-headed giant. To the story as such, there isn't much—it's your vintage extremely unsubtle religious fable about the Awesomeness of the Christ, and there's quite a bit of clunky moralizing going on here that can't be blamed on the source material alone.

What Reprobus is pretty good at, though, is the storytelling. Alternating between hieroglyph-like sections and elaborate painted imagescapes as deep and dark and still as the Grand Canyon on a crisp winter night, Färber's adaptation commands quite a bit of awe on its own. His characters look haunted and painfully alive, and their world—there's a fully painted fold-out map in the back that allows you to retrace the protagonist's journey—is a mythic and threatening, yet frighteningly real place that, in its best moments, can give Tolkien a run for his money. More importantly, Färber knows how to pace a story, and how to tell it from panel to panel, from page to page. I'm more of a sizzle-and-pop kind of guy, myself, but there's great potential here. I'm curious what Färber does next.

by Markus Färber
Rotopolpress, 2012 [in German; preview]
paperback, 80 black-and-white pages, €22.00
ISBN: 978-3-940304-76-6

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9 [ˈnaɪnɝ]  | [nœf] | [nɔɪ̯n] 9

If the first Hilda album, Hilda and the Midnight Giant, was a little busy in terms of plot and competing conflicts, Hilda and the Bird Parade seems somewhat on the light side. The former was a more densely told, structurally more elaborate story that covered a couple of days and ended a bit too abruptly; this new book is a comparatively straightforward narrative that occurs over the course of one evening, and purely in terms of what “happens,” it's not very meaty. So if there's a major complaint with British cartoonist Luke Pearson's work, it's that he still seems to be looking for the right balance there.

That aside, though, Pearson keeps hitting the right notes in this admirable series. From its feisty little heroine to her supporting cast to the Scandinavian-flavored setting, in which timelessly universal real-life people, towns and concerns co-exist with anthropomorphic animals and Norse folklore creatures, Pearson has carved out a unique and magical cosmos for his stories. And judging from the way this cosmos and its inhabitants are growing, he has a plan. In Midnight Giant, Hilda learns that it's a complicated world out there, and the ending of that book, where she and her mum are forced out of their idyllic valley and into the big city, is quite a shock. In Bird Parade, they've just arrived at their new house in this strange, big, threatening new place, and the characters keep growing and learning from there.

This sense of growth is also present in the storytelling, and particularly in the way Pearson lays out his pages. In the fairy-tale valleys and forests of Midnight Giant, the composition is clear and easy to follow, but rather chaotic and often deliberately shaky in terms of its architecture; if the pages in Midnight Giant were houses, I'd rather not live in them. In Bird Parade, that's very different: Along with the big-town environment of the city Trolberg come pages that are built rock-solid architecturally, brick for brick, column for column.

I'm loath to bring up Harry Potter here, because Hilda is nothing like that, really. But it seems similar at least in the sense that it looks to be the kind of series that won't just hit the reset button at the end of every episode and endlessly drive home the same points, but enable its readers to grow—and, perhaps, grow up—along with its characters.

Hilda and the Bird Parade
by Luke Pearson
Nobrow, 2012 [preview]
hardback, 40 full-color pages, £11.95
ISBN: 978-1-907704-48-2

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8 [eɪt] | [hɥi]  | [aχt8

This might seem odd, but structurally, Prison Pit reminds me a lot of Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. The film is a formalist exercise: an action thriller in structure, only with all the action-thriller routines taken out and replaced with a set of completely different rituals that you don't normally associate with action thrillers. “No guns, no sex,” as one of the characters—an ostensible femme fatale identified in the credits as The Nude, who is, well, nude all the time—points out. And though the protagonist is clearly meant to be a secret agent on a dangerous mission, the film sticks to that rule and establishes its own set of routines. Instead of having sex, the characters do something approaching performance art, for instance; and rather than to engage in physical violence, they talk about the arts and exchange matchboxes.

And Prison Pit, now, is kind of the inverse. In a broad sense, Ryan's story is a robinsonade, sure. But it never shows any interest in elaborating on its hero or his concerns beyond what's in the first few pages—or on the cover, for that matter—of Book 1. There's this guy who's been dumped in a post-apocalyptic prison pit, period. That's the story, and Ryan boils it down to the existential needs that define the stranded-in-hostile-environment genre. In Prison Pit, language only serves to command or to intimidate. The artwork looks ugly, crude and perfunctory. The characters eat, shit, fuck and, most of all, fight their way through the book, the narrative being what results from a series of ever-escalating existential imperatives, threats and horrors. And as these horrors, along with their responses, continue to grow more excessive and bizarre, Prison Pit, even 400 pages into the narrative, still grows more intense and urgent with every scene. It's one mean, sick motherfucker of a comic, and I can't wait what happens next.

Prison Pit, Book 4
by Johnny Ryan
Fantagraphics Books, 2012 [preview]
paperback, 110 black-and-white pages, $12.99
ISBN: 978-1-60699-591-4

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7 [ˈsɛv.ən] | [sɛt] | [ˈziːbn] 7

Das UPgrade, by German veteran comics makers Ulf S. Graupner and Sascha Wüstefeld, is a projected 10-issue series starring one Ronny Knäusel, formerly the first and only superhero of the German Democratic Republic. Ronny doesn't take the end of Communism very well: His power is teleportation, and when the Berlin Wall comes down, the demand for his particular brand of heroism crumbles along with it. In 1988, Ronny is a 21-year-old rock-star rebel, listening to 1960s surf tunes on his Walkman while teleporting grateful refugees to West Germany; by 1992, he's a recluse, unemployed, overweight and rudderless.

Graupner and Wüstefeld deliver an exciting genre romp through Germany's Cold War history and beyond, alive with a cast of fantastic characters, awash in pop-culture references and told in giddy four-color pages, flush with jaw-dropping—and jaw-droppingly well-employed—special effects, that are equal parts Kricfalusi and Disney in style and almost musically rhythmic in composition. The book's tone is reminiscent of a vintage Pixar production—though upbeat throughout, it ranges from silly to serious, with an emphasis on character. In a national comics landscape ruled by pretentious mediocrity and random nonsense, Das UPgrade is an oasis of awesome: a confidently and deliberately told, ambitious, attractively designed pop-comics extravaganza that manages to be distinctly and delightfully German.

Das UPgrade, issue 1
by Ulf S. Graupner and Sascha Wüstefeld
Zitty Verlag, 2012 [in German; preview]
paperback, 50 full-color pages, €9.90
ISBN: 978-3-922158-02-8

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6 [sɪks] | [sis] | [zɛks] 6

La tête la première (“Headfirst”) is the penultimate chapter of Manu Larcenet's grim case study about Polza Mancini, a massively shaped, psychologically impenetrable murder suspect with a grotesque schnoz.

Is Polza guilty? Is he crazy? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? And what, precisely, is this “blast” that he keeps talking about? The answers to some of these questions are becoming clearer, and they're not altogether surprising. Visually, however, the way Larcenet communicates his story is staggeringly, at times frighteningly effective. More so than in Le combat ordinaire (a. k. a. Ordinary Victories), his previous major project, he relies on the images to tell the story. Dialogue and narration are comparatively sparse in Blast, and the book goes on for pages at a time with no words in sight. The graphic language Larcenet employs here is completely different from the colorful, often teeming 12-panel-grid imagery of his last four-parter. Here, it's a big, black, blocky nine-panel grid that sets the rhythm, filled with dark, mirthless images whose sullen black-and-whiteness is only interrupted by disturbing oil-painting or mosaic portraits or by the brief, garish release of the “blast,” which looks like it was drawn by a child with a set of felt pens.

Blast is one of the bleakest, most unsettling books I've read this year, but also one of the visually most exciting and well-told ones. It's fantastic to watch Larcenet grow and stretch as an artist and as a writer with every new project he undertakes.

Blast, tome 3: La tête la première
by Manu Larcenet
Dargaud, 2012 [in French; preview]
hardback, 200 mostly black-and-white pages, €22.90
ISBN: 978-2205-07104-7

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5 [faɪv] | [sɛ̃k] | [fʏnf] 5

There are any number of things that could have gone horribly wrong with this book but miraculously didn't. Sure, British artist Glyn Dillon was working in comics professionally a quarter of a century ago, so, even if his output has been slim in the meantime, you can hardly call him a newcomer.

Yet, The Nao of Brown isn't just his first major comics work in almost 20 years, but also his first full-length graphic novel—not to mention that, unlike most of his previous work, he also wrote it. On top of that, he's not just picked a culturally and ethnically diverse cast of characters to work with, but also a geeky female protagonist suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. In theory, this book's set-up is a creative-writing-workshop nightmare waiting to happen. And, to be frank, I suspected everybody was just having a hard time getting over the pretty pictures, back when the buzz first started.

But: no. The characters in The Nao of Brown are just as beautifully rendered as the artwork that portrays them, and the book starts earning its obscenely stunning visuals from page one. Dillon makes me believe these characters and the dense and complicated world they inhabit. There is a great wealth of ideas in the book that lends depth and authenticity. Crucially, Dillon enables me to get a sense of what it's like to be be Nao Brown and see the world through her eyes. And the visual storytelling idiom Dillon uses is every bit as breathtaking as his depiction of figures, textures, facial expressions and gestures.

In other words: The Nao of Brown is good. It's really, really good. For someone who it seems nobody in comics had on the map, Glyn Dillon is almost unbelievably adept—as an artist, certainly, but also as a visual storyteller and writer.

The Nao of Brown
by Glyn Dillon
SelfMadeHero, 2012 [preview]
hardback, 200 full-color pages, $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-906838-42-3

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4 [foʊr] | [katʁ] | [fiːɐ̯] 4

On paper, some Canadian dude's saddle-stitched black-and-white nine-panel-grid small-press comic about a young female law clerk who doesn't get out much sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry—which is what Frances, the protagonist, literally does at one point in the story. In practice, though, Pope Hats is one of maybe two or three comic books of 2012 that I could imagine reading every month—or every week, for that matter—without ever tiring of it. It's the How, stupid.

Rilly's knack for characters is such that I suspect he could write and draw 40 pages of Frances riding an elevator up and down in silence, and it would be as entertaining and insightful as any comic you're likely to find that year. Give him some commuting, shopping, sitting in offices or lunchtime breaks, and he gets more out of it than most comics do of the universe hanging in the balance. Rilly's observations about the way people interact and communicate, his dialogue, his linework and timing bring out literary truth and depth in almost any situation, no matter how mundane it may seem at first.

Pope Hats may be subdued in premise and presentation, but its pages hold some of the most accomplished and deliberate North American comics storytelling that's out there right now.

Pope Hats, issue 3
by Ethan Rilly
Adhouse Books, 2012 [preview]
saddle-stitched, 40 black-and-white pages, $6.95
ISBN: 978-1-9352332-0-6

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3 [θɹiː] | [tʁwɑ] | [dʀaɪ̯] 3

Casanova is about cutting through the bullshit. That's what the book's eponymous spatiotemporal, post-heroic secret-agent/supermass-murderer/struggling-idealist hero is doing in the story, and that's what writer Matt Fraction is doing with the comic. And there's a lot of bullshit to go around for both gentlemen, certainly. For Casanova, a major part of it is a literally endless string of almost literally self-destructive missions he's being sent on by his own father, the head of a—pardon—spatiotemporal super-agency. For Fraction, a major part of it is writing commercial stories that are not as good or as true as they might be because they will make him a bunch of money that, among other things, will enable him to keep making books like Casanova whenever—and therein lies the rub—he finds the time to actually do it.

And once we cut through all that bullshit that we on some level believe to be for the greater good, what we're left with is truth and an identity, and the things we love and lose and have to give up—or think we do—in life in order to be able to get the things we want. There's a hell of a lot of all that in this amazing, deeply personal genre comic that's also a meta comic about making genre comics, and Fraction and Bá communicate and imbue it with precisely the kind of zest and punch it needs. Visually, lyrically and conceptually, Casanova gels, swings, grooves and sings in a way that very, very few comics—of any kind—ever manage. The struggle for life and truth, and the bargaining that comes with it, may be endless, and endlessly grim at times, but damn it all to hell if you can't put a beat on it. Casanova is that beat. It's human defiance and perseverance incarnate, viewed through a motley pop-culture lens, and it's so rhythmic you can dance to it.

Casanova, Volume 3: Avaritia
by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá, Cris Peter and Dustin K. Harbin
Marvel/Icon, 2012 [preview]
paperback, 130 full-color pages, $14.99
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4864-7

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2 [tuː] | [] | [ʦvaɪ̯] 2

Douglas Wolk is right to call the title of this collection an argument. It's part of one, for sure, and so are the comics. In these 11 pieces originally published between 1998 and 2011, Sacco is reporting from places like Iraq, Malta and India—from refugee camps, war zones and criminal courts. Individually, they are pieces of reporting. Collected between two covers and with a new preface and production notes by the author, they also represent a statement on journalism itself. Can there even be such a thing as “comics” “journalism”? What about accuracy? How do you decide what to draw and what not to? What about balance and objectivity? And what about the truth, when everything you put down on that blank sheet of paper will be the result of a string of subjective and personal decisions?

In Journalism, Sacco is asking these questions, and he has answers, too—not just in his introduction, but also in the comics themselves. More so than any of Sacco's full-length works, Journalism acknowledges that the act of reporting itself, regardless of the medium, has quite a few inbuilt contradictions. Journalism—all of it—is Sacco's manifesto on journalism. And while any approach to the subject, certainly including Sacco's, is debatable—and at times highly so—, one of the chief merits of this book is that it makes you aware of its inherent limitations. Sacco delivers a powerful statement in favor of conscientious and responsible reporting, and he even makes a convincing case that if you're going to have journalism, then comics, rather than prose, photography or film, may be the best way to do it.

by Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, 2012 [preface]
hardback, 190 mostly black-and-white pages, $29.00
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9486-2

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1 [wʌn] | [œ̃] | [aɪ̯ns] 1

Confession time. I've always preferred novels, short stories and films to comics. I like comics fine, but clearly, it—to a greater degree even than film—is a form that's not necessarily narrative. And I'm a story guy, so whenever comes around a comic that does a lot of things that aren't about storytelling, I get a bit frustrated, not just as a critic, but as a reader, too, because I don't know what to do with it. This may also be the reason why I find comics that are as immersive as those other storytelling forms hard to come by. Like James Sturm told me about his own reading experience last year, it's the narrative that draws me in, and, even with the best comics storytellers, I rarely find a narrative pull that's comparable with that of a novel, or a short story, or a film.

Enter Building Stories, which pacifies and reconciles many of my hang-ups with (usually) non-narrative approaches—basically by cheating and making them part of the narrative. Its 14 separate pieces do make a story, certainly, and all together, they provide an experience that's as deep and rich as that of a good film or prose work. Building Stories is less about a single subject matter than about the whole tapestry of human experience. It's a book about having parents and kids, lovers and spouses, neighbors, friends and classmates, and pets. It's about growing up, going to school, the awkward conversations with the plumber, the sexual inclinations of your ex, getting sick, getting better, growing old, being old, death, moving on. It's a book about the life we lead and the lives we don't. It's a complete, sprawling account of life. Chris Ware knows truth when he sees it and, helpfully, happens to be accomplished and skilled enough with words and images in communicating it to his audience. Comics may have to wait a little while longer for its own Nabokov, but Ware gets us as close as we have ever been.

Beyond appealing to me as a reader by being urgent and true and inventive, Building Stories also makes me a happy critic, because it jumps headlong into a conversation with other seminal comics works. Architectural units doubling, graphically or conceptually, as storytelling units? Well, Busch and McCay did that, and so did Eisner, in his Tenement Stories on Dropsie Avenue. And some of the more specific ideas Ware picks up—the body renewing itself every seven years; two objects or individuals implying a third “space” or “entity” that exists between them—are also explored by Mazzucchelli in Asterios Polyp, whose protagonist is, of course, an architect. As you are reading Building Stories, you'll even notice how it frequently breaks away from convention and teaches you new ways of following a comics page. It's as much an elaborate thinkpiece as it is a story in its own right, and it's highly enjoyable to see Ware play ball with other masters of the field and, along with them, try to figure out what else can be done with comics.

But Building Stories is also, quite obviously, a lovely big box full of books, booklets and sheets in all kinds of shapes, sizes and formats. It maximizes your haptical experience and encourages you to participate in the story-building by building your own way through the story. So, in addition to telling you stories about life and death, and love and loss, and hope, and stories set in buildings and stories about buildings and stories about building stories and stories about building comics stories about buildings, and teaching you how to read them, Ware also wants you to have a little fun playing with this big old puzzle box of an Art object that he made. Ware loves comics, and beyond using it to tell stories that are real and true, he also loves to do stuff with it that only comics can do. Prose cannot do what Ware does. Film cannot do what Ware does. Building Stories is a celebration of comics, and of life.

Building Stories
by Chris Ware
Pantheon, 2012 [preview]
box set, 14 full-color comics in multiple formats, $50.00
ISBN: 978-0-375-42433-5

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Happy New Year, and thanks for reading. Please go and pick up some of these comics, if you haven't already. (And if you're a German publisher: Please secure the rights to Nos. 5 through 1 while they're still available, and then hire me to translate them. Thank you.)


Dave Carter said...

Thanks for this. I wasn't aware of the two German books (Das UPgrade and Reprobus) before. I've now ordered them for the library's collection.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


That's very awesome to hear. Thanks for reading, and for letting me know.