Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Graphic Novels -- notes from a Top 10 List

In addition to the prose and ruminations I contribute here in monthly installments, as some of you know I also review graphic novels for SF Site, in the Nexus Graphica column.

I share that column with Austin-based writer/editor Rick Klaw, and as is our custom, we close out the year with a "Top Ten" list, each of us devising our ten favorites among the things we've read and written about (with the acknowledgement that you could spend the year reading, or coming across, other books, and have an entirely different, and equally worthwhile, Top Ten list as well).

The list runs in two parts -- two weeks apart -- in its original form, but here is a redaction of finalists of piqued-interest to GLW readers, all of which were plucked from the top five of the top ten:

In the fifth spot, Rick liked DC Comics' superhero collection, Wednesday Comics, edited by Mark Chiarello, writing that "throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, adventure strips dominated the Sunday newspaper comics pages. Oversized, full color pages featured the thrilling tales of Prince Valiant, Tarzan,Flash Gordon, and countless others. Under the guidance of DC art director Mark Chiarello, Wednesday Comics successfully re-captured this lost era with a series of oversized weeklies à la the Sunday funnies (dubbed Wednesday rather than Sunday in honor of the day new comics arrive in stores). This beautiful 11"x17" 200-page hardcover volume collects all the tales from the incredible 12-week run. While each featured A-list talent, some stories work better than others. Jack Kirby's creation Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (expertly rendered by writer Dave Gibbons and artist Ryan Sook); Paul Pope's unique take on Adam Strange; and especially Hawkman as delightfully envisioned by Kyle Baker lovingly embracing the format and lessons of their antecedents. Other excellent tales excel under the contributions of Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, Kurt Busiek, Joe Quiñones, Karl Kerschi, Brenden Fletcher, Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze. Regardless of the story, one mood permeates the entire volume: fun. Combine all this with previously unpublished strips starring Plastic Man and Creeper, original sketches, and Chiarello's impressive book design, and Wednesday Comics quickly emerges as must-experience for all classic comic book fans."

I hadn't read the whole run of Wednesday Comics by deadline time, but at the five-spot picked Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid by Steve Sheinkin (Jewish Lights), writing that I'd already enjoyed Reb Harvey's earlier adventures, and here Sheinkin's affectionate take on Talmudic and other Jewish folk tales, reworked and re-set in the 19th century Rockies, continues what is practically an "alternate history," with predominantly Jewish enclaves among the mining towns of the gold, silver, and fur-boom eras. Disputes are settled not with Colts or Winchesters, but with parables and reason(!). At least they are while Rabbi Harvey is dispensing advice, Lucy van Pelt-style, until he is challenged by a young upstart Rebbe, who is a little too glib, and -- yes! -- part of a plan engineered by his mother, the "Bad Bubbe." What would Philip Roth make of that? For the first time, Sheinkin gives us a book-length tale -- with the reworked parables and folk tales in service of a larger plot, rather than the other way 'round. And with his still Sepia-esque, still woodcut-influenced style (makes sense when the setting is high timber!) the ride -- on a horse, even! -- is every bit as enjoyable in this third volume as it was last time out.

At #4, I liked Trickster by Matt Dembicki (ed.) and other contributors (Fulcrum) Tricksters, of course, are those characters who can move between worlds, boundaries, rules, and sometimes genders, and transform things. Hopefully for the better, but maybe, not always. Here Dembicki has put together a great introduction to Native American trickster tales, in accessible "graphic novel" versions (novellas?) for those who have yet to catch up with the adventures of Coyote -- the continent's first media star -- outside of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The stories don't just stick to the well-known Coyote, and include other trickster luminaries like Raccoon, Raven, Rabbit, and more. The "tellers" here are Native American storytellers -- each paired with a stylistically different artist (from "serious" painted work to exaggerated cartooning) -- which means that the story structures, often defying Western expectations of "linearity" (and cause and effect), are preserved. Not that a real trickster worries, particularly, about structure. Or form.

In the #3 spot, Rick had It Was The War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics) writing that the "extraordinary collection of World War I tales offers perhaps the finest work from the lauded Tardi. Each story, based on actual accounts from French soldiers, relates the often-horrific realities of trench-warfare. Disturbing yet compelling images abound: a dead, mangled horse hanging from a tree serves as a warning; rats feasting on corpses; amputations; executions; countless dead. Far more memorable are the impassioned stories themselves. Betrayal, deceit, mistrust, murder, hope, and even humor run throughout these tales. Painstakingly researched, the amazing Tardi perfectly captures the everyday despair of the World War I trench soldier. Visceral, powerful, and effective, the flawless It Was The War of the Trenches blazes a new standard for the war comic."

For #2, I had YUMMY The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri (writer) and Randy DuBurke (art) (Lee & Low Books) YUMMY was also reviewed here at GLW by a different contributor, and I found the graphic novel about death and desertion on Chicago's South Side haunting, more so because it's true. The book tells the tale of 11 year-old Robert "Yummy" Sandifer -- so nicknamed because of his sweet tooth -- is a wanna-be gangbanger, looking for street cred in the eyes of his older brother's gang. So he starts shooting at people and winds up killing an innocent teenage girl. And, in being a "baby" who killed another becomes a media sensation and a liability to the gang that appeared to "befriend" him. Neri constructs a fictional investigator -- à la Citizen Kane -- to look in to Yummy's story (and provide a narrative for us), and in reading it, you want to somehow head off the inevitable outcome. But you can't. Neri and DuBurke have complementary, documentary-like styles, and if the language is unrealistically "toned down," that's because Lee & Low want the book to be available to any future "Yummies" through their local libraries (or maybe even school book fairs) -- anyone of an age where they still secretly take a teddy bear when going to a sleepover, yet still naïvely imagine guns, and violence, to be "cool."

And finally, Rick and I did share a couple titles on the list, including one that was his top pick of the year (winding up at third on my own list, though there was little distance that separated my top books at the finish line), which was X'ed Out by Charles Burns (Pantheon).

I picked up the book on recent winter night, intrigued by its surreal TinTin feel, evoked by its layout and coloring. Rick called it "equal parts Hergé and William Burroughs" which was right on the money, as the tale follows our hero Doug, a young fellow recovering from a mysterious head injury, as he wakes up and wanders through a literal, discovered hole-in-the-wall, and then various holes in his existence (and the world's at large), as he winds up in parallel/ overlapping dimensions, city-scapes, etc. Not entirely unlike the film Inception, in asserting that even the most grounded "reality"... may not be. I need to re-read this a few more times, but I loved the use of color and "coffee table comic" tropes to explode the form, and the keep the ground shaky underneath my visual feet. And really, a phrase like "visual feet" is entirely in context here.

Given that this is the first chapter in a longer saga, I look forward to reading -- and puzzling over -- more of Doug's adventures in the new year. I hope your new year is adventurous, sustaining -- entirely nourishing and amazing -- as well.

See you in '11 !

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