So, hey, just in time for the BEST COMICS OF 2009 lists to come rolling in,
We have the Best Comics of 2008 meta-list! (based on a methodology devised by our own Chad Nevett)
Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button is number one.
Which means that, while my post on last years (07) list was enthusiastic and happy and all about explaining the logic as I see it, THIS years list is gonna be a lot more “What the hell are you people thinking?”
This was gonna cover the top ten, but it ran long and complain-y. So just the top five for today. More before the end of the year.
1) Bottomless Belly Button – By Dash Shaw.
Why. Why…why…why….why…why? Does it take. One hundred and seventeen panels. For. ANYTHING. To. Happen. It juuuuussssst gooooeossss soooooooo slooooooowwww. How many pages do we need to show a guy running? Or that epic, gripping, three mastrubation*-onto-doll-clothes sequence?
E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R to H-A-P-P-E-N and by the end it was driving me nuts. We have here a seven-hundred-some-odd brick of a book that could have easily been sliced right in half.
And what’s worse: This approach to pacing seemed to work against the theme of the book. The plot of the book – The Three grown children with their various spouses and offspring in tow return to their ancestral home on the eve of their now-borderline-elderly parents divorce – depicts a deeply claustrophobic situation. A bunch of no-longer-familiar people all crammed together into an unfamiliar situation.
But the lackadaisical pacing totally undermines this. In taking so much space to tell a story, if gives the book a sense of open-ness of being unconstrained. And that just doesn’t seem to fit with the actual story.
Which, I should add, WORKS. It sets out to show how the five main characters respond to trauma (and to each other) and, by God, we end up knowing how they respond to trauma (and each other.) And there were individual elements of craft I thought were cool: The graphs, architectural diagrams, and the neat little “Types of Sand” po-essay at the start of the book all worked as cool visuals unto themselves and helped to hand-hold the story along. The light magical-realism type touches in the art worked well, not overwhelming the book with unbeleivable fanatasy but providing some cool visuals.
But this is SO NOT BOOK OF THE YEAR. This ain’t even the best comic I’ve read in 2008 by Dash Shaw! (The first half of Bodyworld was better.)
And it’s more’n slightly frustrating that a good but deeply flawed comic by a guy who’s obviously going on to do much better work is getting this kind of praise.
Unless, of course, I’m totally missing anything.
Am I missing something?
* Aw, c’mon spell-check. You do so know that word.
2) Acme Novelty Library # 19 by Chris Ware
is one damned Chris-Ware-y comic. You but it, know what your getting.
Hint: Not happy sunshine-fun day at the candy farm.
This is part three of the Rusty Brown serial, the life and times of a dude who’s REALLY into his action figures, to the exclusion of ever having a life. And, yeah, it’s bloody-damn depressing.
But… But it’s also great comics. It’s not that the drawing is immediatelyimpressive, but Ware just GETS the comic form in his soul on an intrinsic level. Pretty much every panel is an effective composition into itself. AND THEN, all those panels fit together to create a unique, grabbing, overall page design. AND THEN all those pages are, Watchmen-like, designed to reflect on and support each other, meaning you have to flip through his stuff multiple times to admire all the interesting visual contrasts. And the whole She-Bang is just beautifully colored, mournful but still downright pretty.
(And there are plenty of comic artists who can draw someone’s heart gettin’ yanked out their unmentionables by a zombie, but couldn’t do pretty if their lives depended on it.)
And, in all of this, the nitty-gritty of tellin’ a story is never lost. There’s no Gary Panter-ian abstract design for-the-sake-of design.
AND THEN Ware’s goddamn good at figuring out interesting, unique formal tricks that only work with comics. One of the main characters breaks his glasses, see, and for a while every panel from his POV is half fractured scratchy smear, see, because he can’t SEE everything because he broke his glasses….
And there are people who’ll work in the comic industry their whole lives that’ll never come up with a stoytelling trick that clever. (For example. Most of them.)
Fifteen years ago I’d be praising this thing to high heavens.
(And you KNEW there was gonna be a but)
Today it’s just another Chris Ware comic. It’s not even a COMPLETED Chris Ware comic, exactly. Sure, part of the story is a (fake) reprinted fifties pulp Sci-Fi story – supposedly written by Rusty’s father, who was more into pulp sci-fi than superhero action figures* – but it’s one damned Chris Ware-y Sci-fi story. SPOILERS: Dead Dogs. SPOILERS: Cuckoldry. BARELY SPOILERS: Heartbreak and melancholy and enniu.
Here’s the thing. It’s 2009. There’s a REAL good chance that this is the high-point for comics, printed on paper, aimed at adults. We’ve cycled up to here, we’re probably going to cycle back down as people stop buying graphic novels, or the way we read is going to undergo a technologically induced sea change or the zombie take over and we’re to busy not getting our hearts ripped out through our unmentionables – But the good times don’t last forever.
Which means that I want to see a number two best comic of the year that’s a god-damn revolutionary game-changer. And this isn’t it. Another Chris Ware comic this good is still just another Chris Ware comic a part three of eight, that’s more-or-less as good as the last few Chris Ware comics. Wake me up when the story’s done and between two covers.
* BUT THERE ARE PARALLELS.
3) All Star Superman Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.
Hey, look! It’s a corporate published superhero comic with an actual ending! This needs to be rewarded based on novelty alone!
Also. I read this right after Bottomless Belly Button. And I’m really impressed with the design of the thing. Quitely doesn’t vary his “camera placement” much – It’s mostly “widescreen” chest-high medium shots, but it achieves the same effect as the drawn out (*ahem*) “Action Sequences” in Bottomless Belly Button. But with ASS there’s a REASON for it. The comic has a sense of openess, a sense of possibilities realized, a sense of “Hey, the main character can freakin’ fly, how freakin’ cool is THAT!”
And it takes less time, too.* Dash Shaw achieved this effect by taking lots of panels to show a single action. Quitely does the same trick by making bigger (or at least wider) panels. Every panel looks like a movie screen abd that means BIG and awesome.
And Quitely’s up there with Acme Novelty Library as well. One example: Lookit what he’s doing with vertical and horizontal symmetry. When he’s trying to make something look nice or pleasing to the eye, everything in the panel is all nicely aligned and balanced. When he’s drawing Bizzaro, everything is all asymmetritcal and jaggedy amd off-putting. And he’s good with negative space and really USING those splash panels to have an impact, and… dude is just a GOOD at applying the formal stuff they teach you in painting class.
And, again, much of the book is just pretty. I’m a fan of pretty.
Gettin’ back to the comparison – BBB is probably the stronger concept – At least “Defining the family unit at one point in time plus bonus magic frog” strikes me as more original and interesting “let’s recycle some old Superman comics.” But since they both end up using similar effects, the execution is so much better here.
And Morrison and Quitely give us a pitch-freakin’-perfect Jimmy Olsen. My God, it’s been soooo long.
* I define comics by time. I can explain it, but not here, and I need charts and sock puppets for the full effect.
4) Too Cool to Be Forgotten by Alex Robinson
Aaaaaaand the most improved award goes tooooooo…
This puppy right here.
Not gonna lie to you people. I thought Robinson’s comic output up to this point has been a Big, Hot, Tranny Mess. I read his Box Office Poison and found a bunch of plot-lines that didn’t really connect with each other or lead anywhere interesting – But some nice character bits. And I read Tricked and was needly enough about how sloppy the writing was that I didn’t even NOTICE if there were some nice character bits.
But Too Cool? This is good. The narrative is stripped down and tightened up, and there’s only ONE main charcter praise the good Lord hallelujah. The drawing is more fluid, there’s some nice E.E. Cummings’y formal experimentation, and the whole package just looks better.
What makes this all the more impressive is that Robinson’s working with story-types that are notoriously difficult to pull off. (A) It’s a time travel story which (B) by it’s nature means that Robinson has to flesh out two main POV characters (one older, one younger) at the same time, AND compare and contrast the way both of ’em view the world.
So maybe it’s NOT just one one major character, at that.
But the whole thing comes along nicely until the end and
Secrets are revealed and there’s a complete shift in tone from hi-school hi-jinx to deadly serious. And, cause Robinson is ABSOLUTELY assured in his command of narrative, it all works, lending some poignancy to everything that’s happened before.
And best of all, of course, is the design of the book – smaller than an average comic and closer to a pack of smokes – is pure congealed joy-sauce.
If there’s a weakness here it’s only by comparison. There are folks on the list who are gonna be considered the greatest cartoonists of their generations, and Alex Robinson (as of now) is only very, very good.
5) What It Is by Lynda Barry
A checklist of factors that need to be taken into account before we head on into the review proper.
- Ernie Pook’s Comeek is my favorite comic strip. One! Hundred! Demons! is my favorite graphic novel ever. Lynda Barry ismy favorite creator ever to work in comics.
- What It Is is, by my big critical standards (Quality of Craft, Originality of the Work, and Thematic/Intellectual Content) the most impressive work to show up in the top ten.
- It’s also not my favorite Lynda Barry work. By a long shot. And not my favorite thing on the list.
- But holy shit you guys…
I bitch about Acme Novelty Library being just another Chris Ware book, and this is the opposite of that. ICollage! The whole thing is low tech, crap-glued-to-notebook-paper collage! Who else is even going to THINK of this? How many artists in any form E-V-E-R question the Standard Operating Procedures of artistic creation. Or, to hammer the point home, how many of the other works on this top one hundred list are created via photoshop or pen and bristol board. (I haven’t read ’em all, but I’d guestimate at least 98.)
And on top of the simple, obvious, process stuff, there’s a kind of scope and ambition here which no-one else is matching. Bottomless Belly Button is a diagram of family dynamics. Too Cool to Be Forgotten is a time travel story with a Carpe Diem! type of theme.
What It Is is a visual transcription of a writing seminar AND a memoir AND a pure art book AND a direct pathway to the author’s unconscious. Which is full of monkeys and squids. It’s just trying to DO more STUFF than the other books on the list.
Did I mention the monkeys? I’d cheertully pay 30 bones for a book of just Lynda Barry monkey drawings.
But. (Here it is again.)
Honestly, and this might just be me, I’m not sure this works as well as “lessons on how to write” as much as “lessons on how to write like Lynda Barry.”
I tried really hard to do the exercises contained here. Swear to God I did. (Incidentally, this is the only book in the top five I paid actual cash money for.) I’d be all enthusiasm, think really hard, get discouraged, got bored, and wander off to play the flash game where you put the penguin on top of the mountain. (I only like video games in the genre of Penguin and Mountain.)
And, again, the problem MIGHT just be with me. But my personal field-test failed. (And got slightly too you-can-do-it self-help-book-y for my cynical ass towards the end.)
But I can’t say it’s not brilliant. I won’t say it doesn’t deserve to be mentioned as one of the best comics of the year. And I’m glad that it sold pretty well – It was on the Amazon charts for a LONG time – and that Lynda’s makin’ some money off it.
But I’m probably not going to sign up for her writing class, either.
Er… I mean…
That’s it for next time. I’ll try to look at Ganges #2, the Alcoholic, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, The huge-ass latest Kramer’s Ergot and Capacity next time. Two of ’em I liked.