Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Comics of the Decade #20-1

This is a list of the best comics of the decade, and below is the top 20. The previous two installments can be found here: numbers 60-41 and 40-21.

by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston & Gary Erskine, 2002-2003
by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart, 2004

The Filth is the perfect expression of Grant Morrison's paranoid, conspiratorial view of the way the world works. It condenses, in its relatively compact twelve issues, the thrust of Morrison's sprawling series The Invisibles. It returns to familiar territory — the malevolent forces controlling the world, the suppression of individuality, the power of sexuality and transgression to overcome such oppression — and does so with Morrison's characteristic blunt humor and restless imagination. Because of its limited miniseries length and the sheer variety of ideas and images it encompasses, it is perhaps Morrison's densest and most tightly packed work. It is raw, undiluted Morrison, leaking wild ideas and constantly setting off on loony digressions and detours. It's about the Hand, a secret agency dedicated to maintaining the status quo by destroying anything that threatens to introduce new, destabilizing elements into the balance of world power, or new ideas into the popular discourse. The book posits a whole behind-the-scenes network dedicated to keeping the reins on sexual and scientific knowledge, even as perversity and mad science rage through the corridors of power. The art of Chris Weston (with inker Gary Erskine) lends a gritty plausibility even to Morrison's most out-there visions, and the book especially benefits from its unified creative team, since uneven artwork has often plagued the writer's longer projects.

The even more compact three-issue miniseries Seaguy offers up a similar, subtly disturbing nightmare vision of authoritarian control and conformity. On its surface, Seaguy looks and feels like a goofy superhero/adventure parody, with the clean, cartoony art of Cameron Stewart and some of Morrison's most pulpy, poppy dialogue. But as Morrison pulls back the layers of Seaguy's brightly colored, seemingly idyllic world, darker subtexts begin creeping in. Seaguy is a third-string superhero in a world that doesn't need heroes anymore, because the populace is uniformly happy and sedate, convinced by mass media marketing to be docile worker drones for the government and its corporate allies. Seaguy and his faithful fish pal Chubby stumble into a massive conspiracy centering around a new sentient foodstuff called Xoo, Egyptian structures on the moon, the clockwork wasps from the lost city of Atlantis, and sinister entertainment/Big Brother icon Mickey Eye. In other words, it's a typically imaginative work from Morrison, who tosses off inspired ideas left and right as his hapless hero has his eyes opened to the mysterious forces that control the world, only to realize that he didn't really want to know about any of this stuff in the first place. [buy] | [buy]

by Tom Neely, 2007

Tom Neely's self-published long-form debut, after a string of minicomics and shorter pieces, is a real shocker, coming out of nowhere to introduce a wholly new and exciting sensibility. His cartoony characters and obtuse symbolism add up to a difficult work, slippery in its meanings and intent, that is nevertheless impossible to look away from. With few words and very little narrative, Neely traces the experiences of a cartoon everyman, with a bulbous, rounded head, comically big feet and Mickey Mouse-style gloves, as he is consumed and pursued by an amorphous black inkblot that sometimes appears as small splotches within his white world, and sometimes threatens to flow across the page, consuming everything in its path. Neely presents various encounters between the man, the blot and a woman who sometimes seems to be helping him and sometimes seems fixed on his destruction. The book deals with conformity, creativity, love and humiliation, all through these enigmatic, nearly silent strips where the blot's seeming meaning and purpose fluidly changes depending on context. [buy]

by Carla Speed McNeil, 2003

Carla Speed McNeil's Finder is one of the great self-published niche series in comics. Billed as "aboriginal sci-fi," her work involves a richly detailed and complex fantasy world, populated with mythic creatures and humans coexisting within isolated and crumbling domed cities. Her style is utterly distinctive and fresh, with a slight sketchiness that belies the precision of her line and her compositions. She experiments restlessly with page design, and frequently comes up with innovative ways of depicting the unconventional concepts at the core of her work. Her artwork has also improved massively over the years; compare the early, scratchy Sin Eater to the sumptuousness of Dream Sequence, her best book so far, and the difference is obvious. McNeil has matured into one of modern comics' most overlooked stylists. Her expressive line delineates instantly recognizable characters who weave in and out of her storiesin unexpected ways. In Dream Sequence, her usual hero, the rugged wanderer Jaeger, steps out of the center, though he does crop up in the form of various doppelgangers and avatars. Instead, this dense, beautiful work tells the story of a man whose imagination is so powerful that he houses an entire elaborate, three-dimensional world inside his mind, allowing other people to plug in and experience this place like characters in a video game. On one level, McNeil's story is a sci-fi horror piece about a monster set loose within this imaginary Eden, but these genre touches only serve to accentuate the themes and emotions at the story's core: imagination versus reality, creativity, the perils of connecting and forming relationships with other people. This book boasts some of McNeil's most startling and gorgeous imagery, married to one of her best stories. And since her Finder books really have no set order, instead linking together in more oblique, non-linear ways, it's even a good introduction to her work or a standalone read in itself. [buy]

by Brian Chippendale, 2006

It's often been said of Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale that he draws like he drums: fast and finicky, filling every inch of available space with the sheer overwhelming density of his creativity. Whether he's pounding on his skins or scratching out dense worlds in ink, Chippendale is a nearly terrifying force. Ninja is the culmination of his work in comics thus far, a massive volume in which the artist picks up where he left off with the crude ninja stories he drew as a young boy — actually included here as the first section of the book — by expanding this ninja's adventures into a grand epic about community and corporate greed. Like many of the artists associated with the loosely defined Fort Thunder scene, Chippendale is fascinated by world-building, by creating whole alternate societies with complex histories and tangled character relationships. This kind of stuff is merely suggested in the sprawling, elliptical Ninja, in which each oversized page is a new "episode" and often follows an entirely new character or set of characters. There's a lot going on here, both in terms of the twisty, tough-to-follow narrative and the dense texture of Chippendale's drawings. The book's all about corporate forces taking over a small town and transforming it; Chippendale, who with the rest of Fort Thunder often lived the lifestyle of a squatters' commune, is very sensitive to the issues involved in gentrification, in forming tight-knit local communities, and in the ways people can be broken apart by powerful outside forces. Ninja is often just a fun, funny action book, and sometimes verges into near-abstract flights of fancy, but it's also politically engaged in very deep ways, particularly in one stunning two-page sequence where Chippendale implicitly compares the passionate, communicative joys of sex to the anti-human evils of government-mandated torture. [buy]

by Jim Woodring, 2005

Jim Woodring has long been one of comics' most fascinating and idiosyncratic artists, mostly working, in recent years, within the self-contained universe of his Frank comics. The Lute String, originally published as a standalone book in Japan, is Woodring's most sustained Frank story of recent years, though Frank himself (the amorphously anthropomorphic hero of many Woodring sagas) is only a peripheral figure here. Instead, the focus is on Frank's friends, Pupshaw and Pushpaw, both of whom somehow look like a fusion between a puppy and a small cottage. Like all of Woodring's Frank comics, this one is wordless, and its meaning ambiguous: these stories are like abstract parables, teaching moral lessons through Woodring's selfish, curious, mystically oriented characters. In this case, the moral seems to be: no matter how important, how powerful, you think you are there's always something greater, always someone or some force beyond your control. It's about life as a hierarchy stretching up into some infinite unknowable place. Just as Frank playfully intervenes in the struggle (or mating rite?) between two miniature insect-like creatures, and Pupshaw and Pushpaw delight in terrifying a little morphing hippopotamus, an elephant-like deity eventually intervenes into their plane of reality, sending the two pups off into a strange, frightening alternate dimension: our own world. While there, the two "dogs" wind up mutually scaring and scared by a pair of human children and a songbird, before they're brought back to their own world, newly appreciative of its special wonders and pleasures. All of this is conveyed without words, with Woodring's stylish, detailed imagery and distinctive wiggly hatching. It's moving, funny, and as with all of Woodring's work it demands a close reading. [buy]

by Chris Onstad, 2001-ongoing

Achewood is one of the greatest, funniest strips to emerge from the 00s boom in webcomics, as comic strip creators began turning to the Internet rather than the dwindling newspaper comic venue. The appeal of Onstad's work is difficult to explain: there's some kind of strange synergy that occurs from the intersection of Onstad's character-based humor, absurd surrealism, minimalist drawing and at times surprising pathos. Achewood started as a Dadaist gag-a-day strip involving a cast of stuffed animals (its first strip literally makes no sense and is somehow funny anyway), and over the years has developed into something much more complex. For one thing, Onstad introduced the characters of three talking cats, most notably the clinically depressive computer programmer Roast Beef and the self-absorbed entrepreneur Ray Smuckles, two characters who have come to occupy the strip's emotional and comedic center. Onstad's work over the years has ranged from surreal "magical realist" arcs, to comedic/dramatic character-based pieces, to parodies of data flow charts, to occasional returns to the strip's roots in one-off gags. [read free] | [buy] | [buy]

by Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray et al, 1999-2005

Alan Moore's Promethea, the crown jewel in his America's Best Comics line, starts with an archetypal superhero origin story: an ordinary young girl named Sophie Bangs is forced to take on the mantle of the superheroine/deity Promethea, though she barely understands what's happening to her. It had the makings of another of Moore's lighter works, playfully toying with genre and clichés in the context of a conventionally satisfying narrative. Instead, Moore pulled the rug out from under reader expectations by transforming the book into a high-concept primer on his magical beliefs, a comprehensive illustrated text book on mysticism, magic and spirituality in all its forms. Over the course of an extended odyssey through a series of magical realms — where each issue was color-coded and drawn in a distinct style by the multitalented J.H. Williams III — Moore's heroine took on the role of Dante's Virgil, as a tour guide through the realms of the unknown and the unknowable. Along the way, the journey encompasses the Tarot, magical sexuality and tantra, and the search for the highest states of being. The book is dense and, ultimately, apocalyptic, though for Moore even the apocalypse is both spiritual and necessary, a way of wiping the slate clean and starting fresh in a new, more enlightened and aware world. Promethea is beautiful and exhausting in roughly equal measures, adding up to one of Moore's most challenging and multi-layered works. [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Kim Deitch, 2002-2005

Alias the Cat, originally published as the three-issue miniseries The Stuff of Dreams, is Kim Deitch's best and most sustained treatment of the themes and characters that have fascinated him throughout his career. His work, seen as a whole, is a dense patchwork in which various animators, artists, imaginary/demonic cats, sexual deviants, psychotics, circus performers, midgets and collectors intersect and interact in various ways. For Deitch, the past and the present flow together to tell multi-generational stories that are utterly absurd and yet acquire a strange plausibility through Deitch's matter-of-fact way of combining the real history of art and ephemera with his outrageous tales. In this latest narrative, his eternal muse/antagonist Waldo the Cat returns as a plush doll, a malevolent island deity, and the possible inspiration for a caped crusader who dresses up like a cat. The story features a trip to Midgetville, the discovery of a hitherto unknown newspaper serial, and an exposé on the sexual antics of furries. It's funny, goofy, exciting and far-ranging in its imaginative nonsense accumulations, and throughout it all Deitch's fond sense of nostalgia for a world that never quite was lends emotional heft to the story's elaborate twists and turns. [buy]

by Dash Shaw, 2008-2009

Dash Shaw is an utterly brilliant young cartoonist who has, in a few short years, advanced from the academic experiments of his earlier work (like the promising Goddess Head) into a formalist genius whose skills encompass both a natural gift for color and a feel for subtle, indirect characterization. Bottomless Belly Button is a daring, daunting work, a 700+ page tome about a mildly dysfunctional family; the book captures the particular moment when the family's parents call together their three grown-up children to announce their divorce. Shaw applies a barrage of formal techniques and styles to documenting the disparate reactions of these characters to the situation, evoking emotions through the sheer force of his drawing rather than stating them outright. His effects are both nakedly symbolic and yet somehow supple, like the way he draws the family's youngest son with the head of a frog, only revealing the meaning of this otherwise unexplained device in a brief, elegant sequence and then continuing to use it to reveal the character's essence throughout the rest of the book.

Shaw's other great body of work during the 2000s, other than his recently completed and soon-to-be collected online strip Bodyworld, are the short stories he's written for the MOME anthology. These stories mostly utilize science fiction tropes and exploit Shaw's animation cel-inspired color overlays. In each story, color is intimately connected with form and narrative, so that the meaning of the story is communicated through the use of color. A recent piece strips down an episode of the TV show Blind Date by filtering the figures in a greenish haze, revealing unexpected depths of longing and sadness in this televised search for love. In "Satellite CMYK," the title refers to a four-color printing process, and Shaw color-codes four separate layers of reality in a story about spies attempting to move between levels in a strictly segregated society; when he integrates all four colors at last for the final image, it's appropriately stunning. Similarly, in "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two," two reality streams, one running forwards and the other in reverse, intersect, as Shaw delineates the different timelines with different colors. [buy] | [buy]

by Eddie Campbell, 2000-2002/2006

Eddie Campbell's Alec MacGarry is his longtime autobiographical stand-in, created in the late 70s and subsequently worked into numerous graphic novels, short strips and comics over the years. Alec has evolved into a rambling autobiographical opus, composed from a patchwork of anecdotes, jokes, formalist diversions and stories about drinking, family life, artistic creation and everything else that passes through Campbell's witty, tirelessly active mind. The entirety of Campbell's Alec comics, recently collected into a massive tome (which includes several long-form stories, and parts of stories, written and assembled during the 00s) represents one of the great sustained efforts at autobiography, since Campbell's mix of in-the-moment diaristic scribblings and retrospective analysis lend themselves to a multi-faceted view of a life in all its complexity and contradictions. Campbell's sharp sense of humor and observation are also evident in the standalone volume The Fate of the Artist, which is closely related to his Alec MacGarry stories even if the protagonist isn't named as such. It's one of Campbell's most formally ambitious books, an imaginative look at the disappearance of an artist (namely Campbell himself) using a dazzling variety of formal techniques and styles. Campbell incorporates mock comic strips, fumetti (starring his own real-life daughter cracking wise about dear old dad), and numerous metafictional diversions, but the star of the show is the way he combines his familiar scratchy style with a gorgeous but equally ephemeral use of watery, hazy colors. [buy] | [buy]

by Mary Fleener, 2002-ongoing

Mary Fleener was an important part of the alternative comics scene of the 90s, publishing her series Slutburger and contributing to numerous anthologies. She was never the most famous name, but she was one of the best, with a distinctive Cubism-influenced style and a warm, slightly naughty sense of humor. One could be forgiven for thinking she has since forsaken comics, though in fact she's been steadily producing work throughout the 00s, mostly outside of the normal indie comics channels. Since 2002, she's been publishing her comic strip Mary-Land in the Surf City Times newspaper in her hometown of Encinitas, California. These strips represent an amazing body of work, marrying Fleener's distinctive style and sensibility to content that is provincial, local and domestic. She ruminates on mailbox art, on surfing, on local issues like the fight to preserve public parks, on bicycles, pets, garden pests, and more. Her work in these strips is almost always tied to the specific place she's writing about and the audience she's writing for. It is rare these days, outside of the generic "humor" of newspaper comics, to find comics written, not for a niche audience of comics fans, but for a general audience interested in a wide variety of issues and ideas. Fleener's work nods back to a time when comics weren't confined to a small core audience but were broadcast far and wide to everyone; within her particular geographic area, Fleener's comics aspire to that same generality, that intimate engagement with the everyday world. These comics are refreshingly direct and accessible without ever forsaking the stylistic adventurousness of Fleener's best work. They represent one of our finest cartoonists continuing to work outside of the usual formats and audiences, and producing some of her best, richest work in the process, mostly out of public view for those not living in Encinitas. Fortunately, for the rest of us she's collected a generous sampling of this work in two volumes, available from her website. [buy]

by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred, 2001-2004

There is perhaps no less likely place to find a great comic than under the banner of X-Force, traditionally the trashiest and stupidest title in Marvel's vast, incestuous X-universe; no mean feat, that. Maybe it was this very disposability, this lack of importance, that allowed writer Peter Milligan, in collaboration with Mike Allred of Madman, to completely re-envision the title, unceremoniously discarding all the familiar characters and crafting a new team, and a new aesthetic, from scratch. This new X-Force is a corporately sponsored superhero team who seem to exist mainly for the purpose of exploiting media and marketing possibilities, though they also have an alarmingly high mortality rate. In fact, in the very first issue of the Milligan/Allred series, the pair introduced a whole team of new heroes, developing their pasts, their powers, their personal issues... only to kill off all but two of them by the last page, including the character who had been primed to be the book's central hero. This destabilizing gesture established the groundwork for what was to come: superhero soap opera wrapped up in media critiques, off-the-wall satire, plenty of blood-and-guts action, and an irreverent approach to the storytelling rulebook. Allred's clean, expressive art, honed by his years of drawing Madman, is at its best here, especially in the infamous and boldly experimental silent issue, starring the group's green, blobby mainstay Doop. The Milligan/Allred X-Force — which eventually rebooted as X-Statix to reflect its distance from the conventional X-universe — is a masterpiece of superhero satire that, eventually, reached its absurdist peak in a battle of finger flicks between a butt-naked Iron Man and equally stripped-down X-Statix leader Mr. Sensitive. It doesn't get any better, or sillier, than that. [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Chris Ware, 2007-2008

There are few artists who have had as great an impact on modern comics as Chris Ware, whose name is virtually synonymous with the popular explosion of the "graphic novel" in recent years, thanks in large part to his lengthy Jimmy Corrigan tome. He is a formal genius of the first order, doing things with page layouts and the incorporation of text that place him at the forefront of formal experimentation within comics. In recent years, he's split his talent mostly between two new ongoing stories, Rusty Brown and Building Stories. The former promises to be another Jimmy Corrigan-esque time-spanning epic of losers and jerks, and in the nineteenth issue of his ongoing Acme Novelty Library, Ware continued Rusty's story in an unusual way, by weaving back and forth between "reality" and a fictional sci-fi story supposedly written by one of his characters. The flow between these two layers of reality is startlingly complex, in ways that may not be apparent at first blush: key details in the sci-fi story that might be initially puzzling are later revealed to have psychologically telling connections with the writer's own life. One particular throwaway detail even seems like an innocuous printing mistake at first, until Ware slowly unfolds an explanation that makes this small touch devastating.

Ware's other major post-Corrigan project is Building Stories, which has mostly been published as a series of Sunday-style single pages or double-page spreads in various newspapers and anthologies. A lot of this material, building up to another sprawling long-form narrative, has been collected in issue 18 of Acme Novelty Library. At its core is yet another of Ware's sadsack heroes — a lonely woman who's missing a leg — but this is some of the artist's most formally ambitious work. Each of these stories breaks down the page into a massive diagram, often presenting the titular apartment building with the rooms within it as panels, while mazes of arrows and text weave around the page, directing the reader's attention in a non-linear flow. It's daring and inventive work, forcing the reader to discover new ways of reading every time one approaches the page. [buy] | [buy]

by Joe Sacco, 2000

Joe Sacco is a unique figure in modern comics: there is no one else who combines sheer cartooning chops with a newspaper reporter's sensibility and instincts in quite the same way. His reportage from war-torn areas of Israel/Palestine and the Balkan region gets to the heart of these conflicts through the testimonies of witnesses and victims, privileging the stories people tell and the experiences of average people on the ground during historic tragedies. While always conscious of the big-picture story, Sacco is committed to a more intimate, personal form of journalism, rooted in oral anecdote and day-to-day life. Safe Area Gorazde is one of his finest works, an account of his time spent in a nominally stable UN-controlled area of Bosnia, where he speaks with survivors and refugees from the Serbian offensive. As in most of Sacco's work, this book weaves together past and present, juxtaposing excerpts from history against the present lives of these people, fenced in and surrounded by devastation on all sides. And yet the book's most poignant current is arguably the way in which normality keeps trying to reassert itself despite the horrors these people have experienced. Little things like music, clothes and cigarettes become loaded signifiers of stability and normality, of the possibility that life will be good again, no longer dictated by terror and death. Even as Sacco explores various horrifying anecdotes of survival and violence, he is also aware that his interviewees are just as concerned with more prosaic struggles: relationships troubled both by the war and more familiar obstacles, the desire for designer clothes from the West, the need to laugh, dance, drink and have fun with friends. This texture, this interplay between horror and normality, makes Safe Area Gorazde an especially powerful document of the effects of war. [buy]

by John Hankiewicz, 2002-2006

The comics of John Hankiewicz, as collected in Asthma, his only full-length collection to date, are poetic and strange, using the language of comics not so much to tell stories as to create moods, to suggest ineffable, inexpressible ideas in the permutations of cartoon iconography and densely cross-hatched drawings. The comics in Asthma cover a wide range of styles and concerns, establishing the relatively broad territory that Hankiewicz explores. His "Amateur Comics" strips wordlessly rearrange a set of simple elements (man, chair, radio, book, picture frame) in ways that suggest abstract visual poetry, repeating motifs and "rhyming" the compositions from panel to panel. In "Martha Gregory," he uses a subtle disconnect between image and narration to explore the psychology of a dissatisfied woman and her male counterpart. Other strips, like the "Dance" series," simply explore the pure aesthetics of movement and form, as stylized, graceful dancers flow together and apart, creating abstract patterns as they move. Hankiewicz's work is frequently puzzling and inscrutable, suggesting slippery, half-formed ideas that are difficult to tease out from within his by turns surreal or mundane compositions. His comics are evasive, never adhering to a single interpretation but instead offering up many suggestive possibilities. [buy]

by Sammy Harkham (editor) & various, 2003-2008

The defining anthology of the 2000s has been Sammy Harkham's Kramers Ergot, which started as a small, self-published zine and, with its fourth volume, became the gathering point for everything avant-garde, experimental, unusual and inventive in early 21st Century comics. The fourth, fifth and sixth volumes of this groundbreaking anthology gathered together under one roof a virtual who's who of artists pushing the boundaries of what comics could be. Contributions ranged from the wayward children's book aesthetic of Souther Salazar, to the patient, straightforward storytelling of editor Harkham, to the media collage of Paper Rad, to the brightly colored dream comics of David Heatley, to John Hankiewicz's destabilizing newspaper strip parody, to the delicate minimalism of Anders Nilsen, to the arty innovations of Elvis Studio, and so much more. Along the way, Harkham's increasingly broad survey gathered in more conventional storytellers (including some of the best work done anywhere by either Gabrielle Bell or Kevin Huizenga), reprints of obscure older material from around the world, and excerpts of work in progress from familiar names like Gary Panter, Chris Ware and Jerry Moriarty. Then, with the massive Kramers Ergot 7, proportioned like giant-size classic newspaper strips such as Little Nemo in Slumberland, Harkham's anthology presented a compelling formal challenge to some of comics' best artists, asking them to work on a truly huge canvas. Taken as a whole body of work, these four issues of Kramers Ergot represent one of the most exciting collections of boundary-expanding comics available. [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Kevin Huizenga, 2007-ongoing/2002-2004/2004-2008

Kevin Huizenga is the best young artist in comics. It's as simple as that. With his recent Fantagraphics series Ganges (part of the Ignatz line of high-quality pamphlets) Huizenga has matured into one of comics' finest formalists. His work here, starring his everyman stand-in Glenn Ganges, is concerned with the minutiae of daily life, which is common enough in indie comics. What sets Huizenga apart is that he deals with such mundanities not only in terms of small external actions and observational details, but with a sensitivity to the complexities of the thought process, of the richness of mental processes and the insistent cycles of memory. His work is deeply introspective, constantly coming up with inventive and expressive ways of visualizing thought: the third issue of Ganges, in which the protagonist spends the better part of 20 pages simply lying in bed thinking, is the apex of this approach, as Ganges wanders through his own mind, interacting with his mental landscape and the words flowing through his head as he tries in vain to clear his mind and go to sleep. It's cerebral in the best sense, treating thought and ideas as visceral and sensory. The series' high point thus far, though, is actually its stunning second issue, which opens with a few pages of abstract permutations, an imaginary video game in which pixelated figures undergo intense transformations as they do battle. This leads into a story where Glenn's experience playing a video game causes him to free-associate to his time as an office drone during the dot-com boom, and the chain of memories unexpectedly creates poignancy and depth from something as simple as playing a shoot-em-up video game. By the end of the story, Huizenga has explored the intricacies of office culture, the economic realities of the Internet age, the sensual and communitarian pleasures of multiplayer online gaming, and the mingled nostalgia and regret implicit in this story about failure and loss. It's all lent extra impact by Huizenga's crisp style, which makes something virtually spiritual out of digital fighters careening across a computer screen.

Huizenga's work in the 2000s hasn't been limited to Ganges, by any means. He's been a prolific and diverse artist, also publishing five issues of the minicomic Or Else, which combined reprints of material from his previous Supermonster series with new stories. He also put together the book collection Curses, which gathered together Or Else #1 with various anthology appearances and short stories. Huizenga's work is best appreciated as a complete oeuvre, as his signature fascinations — the mind, nature, religion, domesticity, memory, philosophy, science — are treated in different ways and different aesthetic forms throughout his work. Glenn Ganges, the blank-faced, big-nosed cartoon who wanders through many of these stories, is Huizenga's neutral observer, his way of getting a handle on all the ideas and moments he wants to explore. His work, no matter where it is encountered, is refreshing, sophisticated and exciting. [buy] | [buy]

by Yuichi Yokoyama, 2004

If you have never seen the comics of Yuichi Yokoyama, you have never seen anything like them. The mostly silent, formally restless work of this Japanese innovator is in a category of its own. There have been two Picturebox books collecting his manga output thus far, and both are rewarding, idiosyncratic, and wildly entertaining. New Engineering collects two sets of stories, one of them detailing the construction of various structures of inscrutable purpose, the other examining, in equally dense detail, a series of fights between goofily-dressed warriors. Yokoyama is obsessed with process, with examining a series of actions through the lens of his time-stretched sequences and analytical images. The combat stories are particularly enlightening in this regard, as Yokoyama observes the way his absurdist weapons and fight scenarios — in one, there's a sword so big it requires several men to wield it — cause aesthetically appealing havoc and devastation. In one story, fighters throw books at one another, and Yokoyama precisely analyzes all of the ways in which sword thrusts might slice through and take apart the books. His "Public Works" stories are essentially the reverse of this, examining assembly rather than disassembly, but the observant, witty sensibility is more or less the same.

As good as this book is, it is in some ways dwarfed by the accomplishment of Yokoyama's other collection, Travel, which is quite simply stunning in the way it takes a simple set-up and single-mindedly examines every facet of the experience. The book silently follows several passengers — looking much like the silly heroes of the "Combats" stories — on a lengthy train trip. And that's it. A bunch of guys stride purposefully onto a train, wander through its corridors looking for a seat, gaze absentmindedly out the windows, perhaps plot conspiracies that are never enacted, then disembark at the end. It's all stylized and exaggerated so that every least little action is magnified, and Yokoyama nearly makes an action extravaganza out of the most prosaic material. It is also a book deeply attuned to sensual and sensory experiences, boasting one of the most beautiful sequences in all of comics, when the train passes through a storm and its aftermath, and the play of shadows, and of light reflecting off water, creates a few pages of near-abstract design that has to be seen to be believed. [buy] | [buy]

by Gary Panter, 2000

Gary Panter's magnum opus is his epic mash-up of the Purgatory section from Dante's Divine Comedy with Panter's own punk everyman character Jimbo and a wide array of cultural reference points, ranging from Boccaccio's Dante-inspired Decameron to Frank Zappa, John Lennon, 50s sci-fi movies, pin-up models, punk rock, and more. It's a dazzling pastiche, with every page laid out in a tight grid of nine panels, and each panel starting with a quote from Dante and relating it to all sorts of other cultural reference points, images and quotes. The panels don't just stand alone either, but instead form unified patterns and images at the level of the page, so that each page can be read both as a sequence of nine panels and as a single image in itself. The denseness of Panter's references and cross-references makes the experience of reading this book a truly overwhelming experience; every line, every image, spirals into multiple other references and ideas, pulling in the whole wide expanse of world culture as a stomping ground for Jimbo's wanderings through the Purgatory of modern existence towards enlightenment. [buy]

by Jaime Hernandez, 2000-2008

Jaime Hernandez has, since 1981, when Love and Rockets first appeared, been one of the greatest of American cartoonists, and also one of the greatest storytellers in comics. While his brother Gilbert's contributions to the series they created together spanned all over the map — from surrealist gags to bizarre fantasy stories to the South American drama of Palomar — Jaime's work was increasingly focused, with singular intensity, on the characters of his Locas saga. The story of two young Chicana punks, Maggie and Hopey, this low-key epic has now been a work in progress for nearly 30 years. Jaime has made his characters age and change with time, introducing new characters in the process and constantly shuffling around his cast, exploring the ways in which people grow and develop, the way friendships break and repair, the way loves ebb and flow as time goes by. It's an affecting punk soap opera, and the more history accumulates behind these characters, the richer and deeper Jaime's stories get.

In the 2000s, after a brief experiment in telling stories in their own separate series, Jaime and Gilbert reunited under the familiar Love and Rockets banner for a second series. Gilbert's satiric wit and outlandish style are still intact, but somehow his work in recent years seems increasingly remote from the emotion and heft of his best stories, which is why he is sadly absent from this list. Jaime, however, just keeps getting better. The Locas-related stories in volume II of Love and Rockets are some of his best work, examining his heroines on the cusp of adulthood, feeling that they now have to mature but reluctant to leave behind the wildness and fun of their youths. These are moving, graceful stories, about growing old, about making new starts, about body image and nostalgia and having a sense of home.

The peak of Jaime's recent output can especially be found in a pair of books collecting his final contributions to Love and Rockets Vol. II. Ghost of Hoppers is one of his best standalone works, focusing on Maggie as she reappraises her life following a divorce. This book is infused with elements of horror and fantasy, but its emphasis is on this 30-something's nostalgia for a home she no longer feels any connection to. As she revisits the sites of her past, scenes from her punk glory days poignantly weave together with the vision of her as an older, chubbier, tired woman. As with all of Jaime's recent work, it draws much of its power from the rich history of this character, but at the same time the polished beauty of his cartooning, and his efficient storytelling, prevent this book from being one for the hardcore fans only. The same is true of the follow-up volume The Education of Hopey Glass, which turns to the artist's other central character, a wild girl who's realizing that, without even meaning to, she's taken the first few steps towards maturity. Jaime's storytelling, his sheer drawing chops, and his obvious love for these complex characters, make these books some of the most moving works in all of comics. There is no greater all-around artist in modern comics than Jaime Hernandez, and his recent work builds on his past successes so that his oeuvre as a whole is shaping up to be one of literature's best sustained stories about aging and the shifting of relationships over the course of a life. I will gladly follow Maggie and Hopey and the rest of these people wherever Jaime chooses to take them. [buy] | [buy]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Best Comics of the Decade #40-21

This is a list of the best comics of the decade, and below is the listing of numbers 40 through 21. The first group of entries, for numbers 60-41 on the list, can be found here, and the top 20 is here.

by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudzuka, etc., 2002-2008

Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man is pulp storytelling at its best. Starting from a winner of a high-concept premise — a plague wipes out all the males on earth save two, the young slacker Yorick Brown and his misbehaving pet Capuchin monkey — Vaughan explores the various repercussions of this apocalyptic scenario in one exciting, probing story after another. The book wears its politics on its sleeve, and its commentaries on gender, war, race, religion and politics are almost always blunt and on-the-nose. But Vaughan gets it across because he just has such an instinctive feel for genre storytelling, and for characterization over time. Yorick and the increasingly large cast of friends and enemies surrounding him are memorably developed over the series' length. Vaughan's issue-to-issue plotting is impeccable, and the story moves with the page-turning drive of the best pulp fiction. It's almost impossible to put down once you start reading. In this respect, the clean, attractive art of co-creator Pia Guerra (and a string of mostly strong guest artists and substitutes) does just what it should, defining the characters with a few bold strokes and clearly underlining Vaughan's storytelling. There's nothing showy or innovative about this series, just good classical storytelling within a light sci-fi framework. Vaughan earns extra points, too, for his bold final arc, in which he abruptly shifts the series' focus in surprising ways to deliver a strange, emotionally intense, utterly unforgettable coda, the kind of ending that hits like a ton of bricks because no one ever saw it coming and yet, in retrospect, it's an utterly perfect conclusion. [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Iou Kuroda, 2000-2003

Iou Kuroda is part of that small corner of the Japanese comics industry that is analogous in some way to the American independent or art-comics scenes: working outside of mainstream genres, with a distinctive and decidedly unpolished style, publishing outside of the biggest venues. Sexy Voice and Robo is a collection of Kuroda's short stories starring the titular Sexy Voice, a fourteen-year-old girl who earns her nickname by posing as an older girl for a phone line where guys call in to talk, non-sexually, with what they think are attractive young women. Sexy Voice is preparing herself for a life as a spy, or something equally exciting and glamorous, so she's training herself to act, to be deceitful, and getting herself involved in all sorts of shady business. She becomes an errand girl for an aging mobster, and occasionally ropes in the pathetic toy collector Robo, one of her regular phone line contacts, to serve as an ineffectual bodyguard on her more dangerous outings. Kuroda's stories, however, are less action-packed genre pieces than quiet, reflective examinations of communication, relationships, memory, the gaps between appearance and reality, and the unknowability of the inner self. Throughout it all, Sexy Voice is an endlessly fascinating and charming heroine, overflowing with wit and vivaciousness, caught at a moment halfway between a playful kid and the jaded adult she might someday become. Kuroda's thick linework, so sketchy and so unlike most other manga, is perfectly suited to these unusual, appealing stories, which mix genre elements with an observational affinity for the little things that comprise character. [buy]

by Ariel Schrag, 2009

For every year of high school, from 9th grade through 12th grade, Ariel Schrag set herself the task of writing a comic about her experiences. This four-book journey culminates with Likewise, the chronicle of Schrag's 12th grade year, a 300+ page opus that transforms this high-schooler's largely internal dramas into a stylistically diverse stream-of-consciousness epic. The book ranges far and wide, continually shifting from the recounting of events and anecdotes to more conceptual segments where Schrag wrestles with understanding and defining what it means to be a lesbian, or how to get over her long-time crush and one-time girlfriend Sally, or why she documents all this stuff in the first place and what it all means. She frequently namechecks James Joyce's Ulysses, and adapts his stream-of-consciousness style to a high school girl's sense of media overload and diaristic rambling. Schrag's voiceover is a near-constant presence in caption boxes throughout the book, sometimes representing the transcriptions of journal entries, sometimes pages of computer printouts, sometimes tape recordings of conversations and monologues. Her art style is as diverse as her continually morphing prose, too. Her sketchy, expressive figures, with their rubbery faces, sometimes solidify into more densely rendered sequences with delicate shadings, or into pages where rich blacks dominate the compositions, or others where the characters and words seem to be disintegrating into childlike scribbles of great emotional intensity. Throughout it all, Schrag's self-awareness and self-criticism mediate the excesses of her autobiographical indulgence, preventing the book from seeming like the mere teary ramblings of an introspective teenager. By the same token, Likewise is infused with a real sense of humor and observation that pushes Schrag out of herself, forcing her to engage with other people, to include their perspectives in her work to offset her own. It's a dense, rewarding book that transmutes high school melodrama and theatrics into something far richer. [buy]

by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie, 2006

This infamous book is Alan Moore's foray into literary pornography, as he retells the stories of popular fantasy figures Dorothy, Wendy and Alice as sexual adventures, recounted through the lens of nostalgia on the eve of World War II. Melinda Gebbie's sumptuous, quirky artwork lends depth and nuance to Moore's deliberately purplish prose, while the book's themes are much deeper than one would expect from Moore's stubborn insistence that he was making straight-up porn. The book deals with differentiating reality from fantasy, and encouraging imagination as a creative outlet, an escape and a counter to the horrors of reality. It is, in fact, a slap in the face to those who would censor artistic expression. Moore issues challenge after challenge to the puritanical and perverted minds who insist that to look at, or draw, a morally objectionable act is the same as actually engaging in it. It's a beautiful, provocative work. [buy]

by Charles Burns, 1993-2004

Charles Burns' long-running series Black Hole is the peak of the artist's great career in horror comics. Burns has a knack for locating pathos and unsettling emotions in horror scenarios, and this story about a sexually transmitted plague among small-town teenagers is no exception. The series ran throughout much of the 90s, but since Burns finally published the last few installments and the collected book after the turn of the millennium, presenting it in its long-awaited definitive form, it seems appropriate to count it among the best books of the 2000s. Burns' noirish style is well-suited to this unsettling story, in which teenage anxiety about sexuality is externalized in the form of various mutations that turn affected teens into monstrous creatures, their sexual anguish etched into their bodies as scales, boils, rashes and new appendages. Few books do a better job of capturing the fear, and the excitement, of nascent desire and adolescent longing, as these diseased teens are driven mad by hormones and embarrassment. [buy]

by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Gaydos, 2001-2005

Before Brian Bendis began turning his attention to various Marvel superhero titles, with increasingly diminishing returns, he crafted the masterful series Alias, which existed on the periphery of the Marvel universe and dealt with superhero storytelling in an unusual and emotional way. The series centers on Jessica Jones, who is at least technically a superhero, or was at one time anyway: she has some minor powers, a bit of super strength, and once dressed up as a crimefighter. Now, however, she's settled into a more prosaic life as a private detective, where her powers occasionally come in handy, but mostly she's just a normal, if tough and isolated, woman. What sets this book apart — beyond its presence in Marvel's MAX imprint, which allowed it greater leeway in cursing and sexuality — is its focus on character development over action. Jessica is a strong, complicated character, and the throughline of her growth throughout this book is the real focus rather than the genre plots. Bendis' most brilliant ploy is to use superhero melodramatics as a way of probing character in unexpected ways: Jessica's long-ago encounter with the Purple Man becomes a central device in a surprisingly candid, sophisticated story arc about dealing with sexual abuse and humiliation, while her romantic relationships with superheroes Ant Man and Luke Cage are developed far beyond the usual level of so-called love in superhero comics. The book deals intelligently with issues of trust, insecurity and painful memories, and Jessica is surely one of the most memorable and original female characters in all of superhero comics. [buy] | [buy]

by Naoki Urasawa, 2003-2009

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is the manga-ka's response to his biggest influence, Osamu Tezuka, the single artist who has arguably had the greatest effect on modern Japanese comics. Urasawa takes as his reference point a popular story from Tezuka's long-running Astro Boy series, a sci-fi adventure mostly aimed at younger readers and probably the artist's most famous creation. "The Greatest Robot on Earth" details Astro Boy's struggle against a mysterious and powerful robot called Pluto, who's destroying all of the most powerful robots in the world in a quest to be the best. Urasawa expands upon this story, using Tezuka's original creation as a framework within which he builds his own much more complicated world, filling in details and fleshing out the characters with motivations and histories that were barely even hinted at in Tezuka's breezy, action-oriented tale. Pluto shifts the focus onto robot detective Gesicht, who's investigating a series of murders that may be connected to the systematic destruction of the world's most powerful robots. Urasawa weaves in references to contemporary events, including some surprisingly blunt "war on terror" satire and minimally camouflaged references to Iraq, but his real innovation here lies in the way he digs beneath the surfaces of these characters, unearthing emotions and philosophical questions that cut to the core of what it means to be human, to think and feel and regret and love and hate. Even more than Urasawa's long-running thriller Monster, the real thrust of this much more compact series is an interrogation of the concepts of nature versus nurture, examining the events and experiences that define a person's personality and moral character. Urasawa is always interested in evil, which he sets up as a terrifying absolute only to probe the more subtle gradations between good and evil: in Urasawa's work, everyone has their reasons for what they do, everyone has their secret traumas and tormented memories. It's a pulpy soap opera convention that Urasawa routinely imbues with much greater depth, lending pathos and philosophical sharpness to his propulsive storytelling. [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Chester Brown, 1999-2003

Chester Brown's biography of Canadian dissident Louis Riel is a strange and inscrutable work, presenting Riel's tragic story in a simple, direct style, with little trace of commentary, so that it's difficult to know what to make of this tale: is it a satire, a tragedy, a black comedy, an exploration of spirituality? Or none of the above? Is it simply the story of a life, told in such a way that all the external interpretations, the guesses and conjectures and the weight of history, simply fade into inconsequentiality in the face of Brown's blank-eyed, Harold Gray-inspired style? Riel, for Brown, is simply a man, and when confronted with the unknowability and distance of such an extraordinary but obscure man, Brown sticks to the facts without venturing into more ephemeral areas. The result is an attempt at an "objective" biography that raises many more questions than it even attempts to answer; Brown tried the same thing with Jesus in his Gospel interpretations, with even more confusing and provocative results. [buy]

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, 2009

The quiet, introspective manga of Yoshihiro Tatsumi was introduced to American audiences by Drawn & Quarterly's series of hardcover tomes collecting some highlights from Tatsumi's punchy, minimalist short stories. With his simple, direct style and schlumpy everyman protagonists, Tatsumi depicted urban malaise, loneliness and sexual perversion with a flat, affectless tone that contrasted against the sometimes harrowing content of his stories. But as good as these stories are, his magnum opus is a newly produced, massive volume that tells the story of his early years as a struggling manga artist, trying to create a new, more realistic movement within Japan along with a few likeminded artists. It is a memoir of a largely unexplored area of Japanese comics, packed with references to artists and works that are largely unfamiliar in the US. His straightforward style positions this volume as a historical account, establishing the context of this time and place both in relation to Japanese history (World War II, the American occupation, the bombs) and the artist's personal life. It is, typically, concerned with sexual maturity, and also with the internal struggles of a man trying to find his own place in life and art. It is especially enlightening to see Tatsumi himself, through his thinly veiled autobiographical stand-in, assume the place of his usual everyman protagonist, confirming the artist's sense of identification with his troubled, conflicted male antiheroes. [buy]

by Mike Allred, 2007-2009

Mike Allred's periodic returns to his defining creation are always cause for celebration. Frank Einstein, the reincarnated hitman known as the Madman of Snap City, had previously been the star of three different series, but the last one, Madman Comics, ended in 2000, and Frank's guest spots in Allred's enjoyably fluffy spinoff The Atomics weren't quite as satisfying. Madman Atomic Comics reunites Allred with his signature character, who looks like a superhero but more often acts like a goofy, lovestruck kid, or maybe a philosopher. Indeed, this fusion of childlike enthusiasm and philosophical speculation is the core of Madman, which recycles 60s comics and pop culture tropes without the irony and deconstruction that so often accompanies modern attempts to reinvigorate the culture and kitsch of the not-so-distant past. Allred's characters speak in a hip patois of beatnik lingo, "groovy" 60s hippie-speak and slangy comic patter. His clean, pop-art drawing style reflects a similar blend of eras and influences, a blend that at times explodes to the surface within the pages of this latest series, which perhaps represents the peak of Allred's Madman saga thus far. The series opens with Frank in unfamiliar territory, briefly becoming convinced of his own godlike status before heading off on a twisty odyssey that mostly involves coming to terms with his own past, identity and existence as a creative product. In the series' epic third issue, Allred sends Frank careening through a shifting mental landscape where each individual panel is drawn in a different style from the history of comics. Thus, Allred gets to have great fun envisioning Frank (and his robot doppelganger Astroman) as drawn by a who's who of comics' greatest stylists: Caniff, Crumb, Herrimann, Schultz, Segar, Gottfredson, King, Seuss, even encompassing more obscure indie names like Richard Sala and Chester Brown, alongside various superhero and EC Comics pastiches. It's a dense, fun issue, propelled as much by the constant stream of inquisitive, philosophical dialogue (all about the self and the nature of life) as by the stylistic diversity on display. This is the apex of Allred's latest take on his creation, perhaps, but it's also indicative of the strengths of this series as a whole, its careful balance between dazzling visual ingenuity and the more subtle emotional and intellectual concerns that occupy the minds of Frank and his creator alike. [buy]

by David B., 1996-2003/2004-2006

The French cartoonist David B. wrote and published much of his epochal series Epileptic — an autobiographical story about his relationship with his increasingly non-functioning epileptic brother — during the 1990s, but he finished the work and published it in English for the first time during the 2000s, which in some way qualifies it for this list. It is, in any case, an immensely satisfying work, because it doesn't make the mistake of so many autobiographical comics of thinking that a true story is enough. Instead, David B. takes his youth and his brother's ailment as the raw material for his wide-ranging attempts to understand the concepts of sickness, family, history and maturity. With his elegant style, dominated by striking blacks and contrasts, he invents numerous metaphors and visualizations for his brother's disease, treating the fight against the disease as a physical, mortal conflict.

David B. then continued his work in Babel, a thus-far incomplete series that elaborates upon the territory of Epileptic by venturing further into political, historical and philosophical content in the context of his family and his youth. This series' examination of genocides and wars brings a global, historically engaged perspective to the artist's affecting visuals. [buy] | [buy]

29. CHIMERA #1
by Lorenzo Mattotti, 2006

Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti has not been a particularly prolific presence in comics, though his short albums of the 80s — Fires, Murmur, Labyrinthes — established him as a fine, expressive artist with an intuitive grasp of color. Chimera is thus a rare pleasure from this elusive artist. Drawn for Fantagraphics' Ignatz line and intended to be the first issue of a continuing series — which, true to form, now seems unlikely to materialize — Mattotti's Chimera is a semi-abstract, mostly wordless comic in which multiple styles collide against one another. The book ranges from sketchy, scruffy pen drawings to thick ink washes to passages of dense, frenzied linework. Mattotti captures the flow of dreams and nightmares, fluidly transitioning between layers of reality as his chameleonic style shifts from spacious compositions dominated by white space to dark passages where you have to squint into the inky complexity to suss out the nuances at work within Mattotti's roiling chaos. The book ends with its best sequence, a panel-by-panel journey into a dark, shady forest that hints at a next issue that never was. It would've been great if this series had led somewhere further, but as it is this comic stands alone as a powerful work in itself. [buy]

by Anders Nilsen, 2004

Dogs and Water is the most complete and potent statement thus far from promising young cartoonist Anders Nilsen, who has created a small but intriguing body of work ranging from his in-progress series Big Questions, to his harrowing attempts to respond to the death of his fiancée in The End and Don't Go Where I Can't Follow, to his two books of ultra-minimal sketchbook exercises, to his various anthology appearances and short-form experiments. In Dogs and Water, his talent is at its most concentrated and distilled, creating a simple but enduring work whose resonances and themes lie just beneath the placid surface. With his minimal line and judicious use of white space, Nilsen sketches out a forlorn wasteland where a solitary wanderer drifts along, encountering various horrors along the way. The book is a parable of wartime dislocation and dehumanization, a mostly wordless story where communication is difficult but ultimately offers the only hope of salvation for these disconnected, isolated people. [buy]

by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley, 2001-2002

Frank Miller's sequel to his widely acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns is not thought of with much respect or affection by most comic fans. Fans expecting another DKR, a second gritty look at a tough, grizzled old Batman coming out of retirement, instead got a garish, outrageous media/government satire in which the titular Dark Knight barely even appears for long stretches of time. The book is as much Miller's snotty perspective on the DC universe in general as it is a return to his apocalyptic Batman universe, as he satirizes and pokes at the company's most iconic heroes: Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Question, Robin. It's probably the nastiest and ugliest work to ever come out of the Big Two's superhero factories, but there's also a kind of gaudy grandeur to Miller's vision, particularly in the computer colors of his then-partner Lynn Varley. Her work on Miller's sketchy, minimalist compositions often goes well beyond mere coloring into actually creating the Vegas-like infotainment superhighway in which this story is set. It's a messy book, no doubt about it, inflected with Miller's loony right-wing paranoia and his naked contempt for the characters he's writing about, but in spite of or maybe because of these out-there tendencies, this book is never less than a visceral, entertaining, balls-out read, from its frenzied opening to its cheekily anti-nostalgic ending. [buy]

by Megan Kelso, 2001-2006

Megan Kelso's short stories are quiet and unassuming things, drawn with a clean, breezy style and unadorned dialogue. It would be easy to dimiss these fragile, open-ended pieces, collected in her anthology The Squirrel Mother, as simple and overly familiar tales of the mundane, except that Kelso's moral probing and feel for understated emotions goes far beyond the talents of most of her peers. The deceptively clean style and pastel colors suggest a light read, but Kelso's work can be devastating in the way she pares down the excess to get at the essence of a particular moment or situation, like a mother's struggle with domestic responsibility versus personal ambition in the title story. In the book's moving and mysterious final story, another woman, this one a rural pre-teen, plays a sexual game, her reasons unexplained: because there's nothing better to do, or she's insecure, or she just finds it fun? These kinds of decisions and feelings are at the core of Kelso's complex, emotionally challenging comics. [buy]

25. GYO
by Junji Ito, 2001-2002

The work of horror manga-ka Junji Ito is marked by his strong, unusual imagination, his knack for concocting devilishly bizarre scenarios and extracting horror from absurdity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the two-volume Gyo, which starts from a bizarre premise — decaying fish begin to sprout robotic legs and take to the land — and just gets weirder and weirder from there. There's an element of gross-out, top-this grotesquerie to Ito's precisely drawn images, and he follows each of his nutty ideas through to its (il)logical conclusion. By the time the book ends, it's gone a long way from the jaunty disjunction of its sharks-with-legs opening premise, and the wealth of bizarre, terrifying sequences along the way make this one of modern horror comics' best works. [buy] | [buy]

by Mat Brinkman, 2000-2005

Mat Brinkman's Multiforce is quite possibly this elusive artist's defining work, consisting of a series of newspaper-format strips mostly published in the Paper Rodeo zine. These large-format single-page pieces are perfectly suited to Brinkman's feverish, incredibly detailed visions of a strange world populated by monsters, skeletons, and outlandish creatures of all kinds. His strips are funny and bizarre, packed with numerous sight gags (a skeleton head rolling down a complex series of paths, then bursting open to unleash a rainbow stream) and absurdist comic dialogue. Monsters sell arms on a street corner and the constant back-and-forth wordplay and banter make it uncertain if they mean weapons or actual limbs. A skeleton walks everywhere repeating his name as though he's terrified of losing his sense of identity, but his constant self-identification proves to be his fatal undoing. Brinkman's dense pages are filled with small stories and gags like this. He also works with radical shifts of scale, as his panels vary from tiny little clusters of miniature figures to massive landscapes that take up half a page. Multiforce is, along with Brian Chippendale's Ninja, one of the great statements to come out of the loose Fort Thunder artist's collective, an encapsulation of Brinkman's imaginative, fantastical aesthetic in a handful of large, dense pages. [buy]

by Taiyo Matsumoto, 2000

Taiyo Matsumoto, most famous for his cyberpunky magnum opus Tekkon Kinkreet, returns again to the subject of rebellious young boys in GoGo Monster. This book, originally published as a single volume in Japan in 2000 and only recently making the transition into English, is mainly focused around an outcast boy named Yuki, who is in touch with an alternate world of monsters and powerful godlike beings that only he seems to see. He shuns his peers and his ordinary world for this fantasy realm, and his gradual shift towards adulthood, when he begins to lose touch with this alternate world, is symbolized by the arrival of a new gang of more threatening, sinister monsters who begin to overwhelm and battle with Yuki's old friends. Implicit in this story is a clever metaphor for maturing, for growing up and losing touch with the vivid imagination and playfulness of childhood, which are replaced with more adult concerns about mortality and responsibility. Yuki is a boy who's afraid to grow up, and Matsumoto dramatizes and visualizes his anxiety in terms of an epic war between invisible monsters who live in water drops and dance to the sound of the boy's silver harmonica. Yuki is joined in his struggle by his new friend Makoto, a more grounded boy who is nevertheless drawn to Yuki's strange immersion in unseen worlds, and by the outcast known only as IQ, a boy so isolated from the world that he goes everywhere with a cardboard box covering his head, so that he only looks out at his surroundings through a small circular eyehole. Matsumoto's affection for these outcasts and dreamers is strong, and his own eccentric, sketchy style, so unlike most other manga, is perfectly suited to this kind of story. His ragged linework and skewed, constantly shifting perspectives contribute to the book's sense of a slippage between prosaic reality and some more magical realm whose presence is sensed in subtle ways rather than seen. [buy]

by Warren Craghead III, 2007

Warren Craghead's work is quite distinct from traditional comics, and this compact book — featuring Craghead's responses to the poetry of Apollinaire — is the perfect introduction to his experimental, evocative style. Craghead weaves Apollinaire's words into assemblages of minimalist drawings, most of which show fragmentary views of people and objects: an arm, a hat, a ladder, a leg, a face with no features. These fragments are arranged into complex structures on pages that use white space in striking ways. Craghead's compositions force slow, careful reading, following the unconventional flow of the words around the page, and tracing the ways in which these words — which are used as graphic elements as much as the drawings themselves — interact with the images. [buy]

by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple, 2007

Novelist Jonathan Lethem's "cover version" of a compromised 1976-77 Steve Gerber/Mary Skrenes/Jim Mooney superhero series is a brilliant and imaginative take on superheroes made by someone who clearly loves them and sees the untapped emotional potential in the genre. Lethem's version of the story starts from the same ground as Gerber's series; his first issue is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of the original's first issue, in which a detached, intellectual young boy gets in a car accident, discovers that his parents were actually robots, and manifests strange powers after coming into contact with a blue-clad, silent superhero type, the titular Omega. From there, Lethem increasing departs from the original story, which was compromised by Marvel's insistence that Gerber incorporate multiple Marvel Universe guest stars and tell a more conventional superhero story than he'd been planning. Lethem, on the other hand, is free to explore his weirdly unlikable young hero and the resonances of the story's Hell's Kitchen setting. Lethem's typical concerns — community, race, the power of fantasy, corporate branding versus individuality — percolate throughout this story, even as it veers back and forth between a loose superhero/media satire and a nuanced coming-of-age drama. There's a lot going on here, and Dalrymple's sketchy, distinctive art, bolstered by the muted color palette of Paul Hornschemeier, breathes life into this quirky universe. Hornschemeier himself also draws a superhero origin story in one issue, but even more notable is the appearance of several jaw-dropping pages of comics-within-the-comic by the legendary Gary Panter, whose raw, energetic drawings wind up being the only self-expression of the otherwise silent alien Omega. [buy]

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Best Comics of the Decade #60-41

For the next couple of days, I'll be posting a countdown of the 60 best comics of the last decade, from 2000-2009. I've put a lot of work into this list, which is surely incomplete (I haven't read everything) but nevertheless gathers together what I feel is some of the best work to appear in the comics artform. The list will be posted twenty entries at a time. Numbers 60-41 are below, 40-21 are here, and the top 20 is here. I have written a brief blurb about each comic included, not as a definitive analysis or commentary, but only to provide some suggestion of what each entry is like. I encourage others to chime in with their own choices and commentary as well. Though this probably doesn't need saying, this list reflects only my own personal taste, idiosyncratic as it is. I have attempted to include a wide cross-section of modern comics, but my biases and preferences have surely dictated the relatively small sampling of superhero or autobiographical comics included here, to name two popular genres, as well as the marked dominance of more formalist and experimental artists. I have also made an effort to include only works truly produced and released for the first time during this decade, thus excluding the wealth of older reissues that have come out in recent years. For the most part, each entry represents a single work, though in a few cases I thought some artists were better represented by their complete oeuvres or some combination of similar books rather than a single representative piece.

In making this list, I confirmed my impression that the artform of comics has reached a creative apex in recent years. The comics produced from 2000-2009 are varied and encompass a diversity and general high level of quality previously unimagined for an artform once considered pulpy trash for children. This is a great time to be reading comics, and this list is my perspective on this especially fecund era's most satisfying works.

by Dave Sim & Gerhard, 1998-2004

Dave Sim's long-running warrior aardvark series Cerebus finally wrapped up, after 300 issues and 27 years, in early 2004, marking the end of Sim's grand project to tell the life story of his title character. Of course, by the time of the 300th issue, the book had changed dramatically, increasingly focusing on Sim's oddball ideas, including his (to say the least) troubled attitude towards women and, especially in the last few extended story arcs, on his, ahem, unusual ideas about religion. What's fascinating about Cerebus in these later stretches is watching Sim become a better and better visual artist with every page, restlessly experimenting and honing his craft, while descending further and further into absolutely loony theology and misanthropy. The nadir, in terms of both ideas and visuals, is the lengthy stretch in Latter Days where Sim offers up, in eye-strainingly small text, Cerebus' line-by-line reinterpretation of the book of Genesis according to Sim's own idiosyncratic reading of the first book of the Bible.

So what's Cerebus doing on this list, anyway, if its glory days were already behind it? Well, the two-book extended story arc represented by the collections Going Home and Form and Void are some of Sim's finest work, at least as an artist. Bolstered by the gorgeous background work of his collaborator Gerhard, throughout these books Sim experimented with form and style, breaking down the page in innovative ways while introducing more of his characteristic metafictional elements. A sequence during a blizzard is especially evocative, as the snow seems to flow in white streaks across the page. He offers up dead-on caricatures of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, even aping the latter's literary style for certain sequences.

Even in the less successful later books, Sim's imagination and feel for the comic page comes across. The final book, The Last Day, opens with one of the most formally dazzling sequences in comics, as Sim collages in photocopies and draws processes happening on both the cosmic and molecular scale, while seamlessly incorporating dense footnotes and textual effects. That this formal ingenuity is linked to some of Sim's silliest ideas only slightly takes away from its overall impact. These books aren't without their problems in terms of the narrative and ideas, but there are few comics that display more formal panache or sheer visual wonder, and for that alone it deserves a place on this list. Cerebus, at times one of the best comics around, ended in the 2000s, and any list that didn't acknowledge this fact would feel somehow incomplete. [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, 2003-2005

It's fairly routine by now to inject a noir sensibility into superhero comics, but few series have done it better than Sleeper, written by Ed Brubaker with art by Sean Phillips. In Brubaker's conception, the superhero concepts and powers mostly take a backseat to strong character writing and crime fiction tropes, as he follows deep-cover secret agent Holden Carver as he infilitrates a powerful criminal organization. The problem? The only man who knows he's undercover, as opposed to a genuine crook, is in a coma. The series boasts a wealth of twists and turns, and all the double-crosses and intrigues one could expect, but its true worth is in its characters, in the way they change over time, always balancing just on the boundary line between good and evil. Moreover, as much as Brubaker underplays the superhero aspects of the story, Sleeper still boasts, bar none, the best use of superpowers in a mainstream comic. The character of Miss Misery, the series' femme fatale, is a woman beset by an illness that saps her strength unless she commits evil acts; the more bad things she does, the better she feels and the more powerful she grows. Over the course of the series, Brubaker exploits this unique "power" in inventive, revealing ways, placing his anti-heroine in paradoxical situations where Miss Misery's central dilemma creates strangely moving ramifications for her and those around her, including Holden. [buy] | [buy]

by Richard McGuire, 2002

Richard McGuire has only a small body of work within comics, mostly limited to a few short stories (including the seminal "Here" from Raw) and his experiments with E.C. Segar's Popeye character. Collected in two French volumes, McGuire's Popeye drawings are abstract representations of the famous sailorman and his beanpole-thin girlfriend Olive Oyl. It's a demonstration of the inherent power of cartoon iconography: strip these familiar characters down to stylized outlines in a single primary color (either red or blue) and they're still recognizable, still resonant. On page after page, McGuire delineates Popeye and Olive with blobs and pipes shaped to suggest their cartoon figures. There's no narrative, just endless transformations and variations, McGuire riffing on these basic forms, demonstrating the variety of ways in which he can explore the same visuals, and the massive warping that Popeye can withstand while remaining recognizable and iconic. Popeye and Olive is the original collector's edition book, massively expensive and long unavailable (but excerpted in Dan Nadel's great anthology The Ganzfeld), while P+O is a sequel in which McGuire's improvisations take on a distinctly sexual nature, positioning his heroes within abstract narratives of desire and lust, like geometric porn.

by Renee French, 2007

The Ticking relates the dark fable of Edison Steelhead, an isolated boy born with his eyes on the sides of his misshapen head, like a fish. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father, from whom he inherited this appearance, wants Edison to get plastic surgery to correct his looks. When Edison refuses, his father begins lavishing more of his attention on his new adopted "child," a monkey who he puts in a dress and introduces to Edison as a new sister. It's a strange book, then, to say the least, exploring the traumas and confusions of childhood through this unsettling story. French's delicate artwork only accentuates the eerie quality of Edison's struggle to come to terms with the world and his own uncertain place in it. French's beautifully rendered pencil drawings, enclosed within undersized panels isolated in large areas of white space, are haunting in the way they balance naturalism with surrealism. In the same way, French balances the tragedy of Edison's youth against her deadpan sense of humor and feel for unusual imagery. [buy]

by Makoto Yukimura, 2001-2004

Makoto Yukimura's Planetes is an exceptionally intelligent, enjoyable "hard" sci-fi manga, concerning the low-key adventures of a trio of deep-space "garbage men" tasked with clearing away the clutter and debris left behind by space exploration. The environmentalist idea at the core of the story — that technological advances inevitably have unintended and far-reaching consequences — is only one current in Yukimura's episodic five-book narrative, which is equally involved in the lives and ambitions of the central characters, the various political and revolutionary plots fermenting behind the scenes, and the day-to-day routine of a spaceship crew. The series sketches out a very complex universe, but never gets too bogged down in the details, instead focusing on the rich character relationships. It helps, too, that Yukimura's artwork is absolutely gorgeous, with a hyper-realistic style that lends weight to all the images of gleaming spaceships racing through a dense black void. [buy] | [buy]

by Frank Santoro, 2006

Incanto is a strange little comic, artist Frank Santoro's nearly wordless appropriation of manga-style aesthetics and storytelling, marrying the look and feel of manga to an abstract, experimental approach, stripping down manga's form to a raw essence scribbled across the page. It's a book about moods and feelings, evoking rather than telling a story; its effect is approximate rather than specific. Santoro uses a small palette of colors — just orange and blue — and a deliberately sketchy style to suggest a dreamlike flow of violence, sexuality, horror, memory, nature, separation and reunion. One doesn't so much "read" it as get swept along by the elusive evocations of its images, which occasionally crystallize from the fragmentary linework of hazy, half-remembered dreams into the startling clarity of a particularly important memory. Santoro depicts several landscape scenes with a crayon-and-marker virtuosity that makes them look like romantic children's drawing vistas, standing out with raw potency from the sketchy, indistinct figures who roam through this non-story. [buy]

by Richard Hahn, 2002-2004

Richard Hahn's poetic comics are among the most original works to come along in years. Hahn's self-published series takes its name from Popeye's mispronunciation of the word "lunatic," and the way this malapropism links Hahn's comics to the history of cartoon iconography makes it a very appropriate moniker for his own work. Not that Hahn is a direct descendent of E.C. Segar in any obvious way, but that he draws upon the basic elements of cartooning in order to craft his own minimalist abstractions and lyrically poetic interludes. The short pieces in the two issues of Lumakick range from enigmatic abstractions to quietly emotional stories in the key of novelist Paul Auster to the deadpan wit of Hahn's recurring characters, the losers Clemenza and Tessio. His minimalist style is equally well-suited to all these varying modes, which coexist comfortably alongside one another. [buy]

by R. Sikoryak, 2000-2009

R. Sikoryak is one of the cleverest, sharpest parodists in comics, a chameleon seemingly capable of appropriating any style in order to explore unexpected junction points between pulp culture and fine literature. He's been working in this mode, sporadically, for a long time now, but the 2000s saw some of his best and most fully realized parodies: his retelling of Crime and Punishment through the filter of Batman, his Bronte/EC horror pastiche, his casting of Little Lulu as Hester Prynne's daughter, his existentialist Beevis and Butthead strip. These pieces reveal a sometimes startling thematic continuity between his literary and his trash culture sources, recasting popular antiheroes as literary icons and reveling in the friction sparked off by this fusion. His work is both outrageously funny and unexpectedly revealing, suggesting that high and low culture are more unified than one would expect. [buy]

by Michael Kupperman, 2005-ongoing

Tales Designed To Thrizzle is Michael Kupperman's latest showcase for his absurdist, Dadaist humor strips, a compendium of bizarre gags and non-sequiturs. Kupperman's lunatic imagination conjures up the unlikely duo of Snake and Bacon, who simply recycle their familiar catch phrases no matter what ridiculous situation they find themselves in. He also concocts whole alternate histories, in whimsical visions of imaginary pasts when a sex-starved populace, deprived of release by constrictive laws, had to turn to loophole refuges like sex blimps and sex holes, taking their illicit sexual encounters either below the ground or high in the air. These absurd scenarios proliferate throughout each issue of Kupperman's series, as he follows each loony premise through to its (il)logical end result. He's a versatile stylist as well, employing a clean aesthetic that shifts from a pastiche of woodcut engravings to the cartoony melange of Snake and Bacon or his Mark Twain caricatures. [buy]

by Eleanor Davis, 2006/2007-2008

The short stories of Eleanor Davis draw on myth and horror to craft succinct, mysteriously moving little parables, like Grimm fairy tales where the "monsters" are almost always infused with pathos and feeling. In her standalone minicomic The Beast Mother, a grotesque, naked female monster kidnaps and cares for all the children from surrounding towns, bringing them to her cave where she tenderly cares for them. With her lumpy body and distended breasts, she is a caricature of motherly affection, feeling raw needs that she fulfills in the only way she can. The story, told mostly without words, is about a hunter who tracks and kills this beast, thereby freeing her half-feral children so their true parents can reclaim them. The beauty of Davis' story is its moral ambiguity, the way she manages to make this ending bittersweet and emotionally shaded; the hunter seems ambivalent about what he's done, and even the children aren't grateful when he destroys the only mother they ever knew. Only the townspeople are happy, paying off the hunter and gathering up their long-missing kids. The hunter goes off to camp, and who knows what happens to these newly reunited families. There's an air of sadness in this ending, an air of loss. There's a similar emotional complexity at work in the handful of stories Davis has contributed to the anthology MOME. In the best of these short works, illustrated in Davis' striking style with sepia washes for color, a ferryman brings a parade of monsters hauling sacks across the water to a gathering, never questioning what's in the sacks, even though they rustle like something alive. It's a parable about the ordinary man's encounter with horror and evil, and how easy it is not to ask questions, to simply do one's job and go about the prosaic business of one's day as if nothing unusual is going on. It's a resonant piece, asking hard questions about morality and conscience in an accessible, stylish way. This is, perhaps, Davis' greatest strength as an artist. [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Joe Casey & Ashley Wood, 2002-2003

Automatic Kafka is one of many comics to tap into the post-millennial zeitgeist and deliver a frenzied, passionate critique of the junction points between media, superheroes, sex, drugs, war and politics. Like Richard Kelly would later do in film with Southland Tales, writer Joe Casey and artist Ashley Wood mimic the sensory overload and cluttered landscape of modern culture. Wood's art, descended from the Barron Storey/Dave McKean school of sketchy multimedia collage, especially sets the tone, with his frenzied scribblings, bold use of color, and abrupt stylistic shifts. The series — which unfortunately still hasn't been collected to rescue it from oblivion — is a brilliant and scattershot satire centering around a robotic man called Automatic Kafka and his fellow degenerate ex-heroes. Casey's heroes have long ago stopped doing anything remotely heroic, and now instead dedicate themselves to various vices, and to pimping out their celebrity on TV, or as ass-kicking government agents. And they live in a deeply strange world, as reflected by Wood's wild artwork: scorpions deliver cryptic warnings, the panels are surrounded on all sides by commercial advertisements, and a man with a firecracker for a head plots behind the scenes. The apex of his approach comes in the series' third issue, in which the title hero's TV game show is visualized through a manic cluster of slogans and icons threatening to overload and crowd out the actual images of the narrative. It's a smart, funny, provocative, visually stimulating comic that remains very unfairly overlooked.

by Elvis Studio, 2007

The artistic duo of Helge Reumann and Xavier Robel, together known as Elvis Studio, have a distinctive, obsessively detailed style, crafting sprawling landscapes where something seems to be happening in every corner, every inch, of the drawing. This style reaches its apex in Elvis Road, an ambitious and original book in which the pair drew a lengthy, scrolling crowd scene stretching out across a roll of paper. The book is designed to be read, not in the traditional manner, but as one very long scroll; the accordion-folded pages can unfurl into a single 20-foot-long sheet. Within this epic sprawl, the two artists feverishly doodle out various mini-narratives and scenes that play out inside a wild, apocalyptic framework. Within the chaos, cops and criminals do battle, characters from popular culture and world history make appearances, factories spew smoke, Klansmen and Nazis go on parade, and Jesus and the Devil themselves prepare for epic battle. [buy]

48. 100 BULLETS
by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso, 1999-2009

Brian Azzarello's 100-issue crime drama started off as a satisfying high-concept gimmick based around its title: a mysterious man known only as Agent Graves would show up out of nowhere, give some down-and-out malcontent a suitcase, and tell them that it contains both a gun loaded with untraceable bullets and information about a person who wronged them. It plops a moral dilemma into the laps of Graves' selected people. Will they seek revenge? Will they change their lives? Will they use the gun? And, if so, how will they use it? Conceivably, Azzarello — his pulpy, punny writing bolstered by the striking noirish artwork of collaborator Eduardo Risso — could have kept pumping out variations on this formula indefinitely. It's a strong formula and one that allows for nearly infinite stories. Instead, over time Azzarello subtly began revealing the broad outlines of a much bigger, more complex story, a history-spanning intrigue incorporating secret organizations, betrayals, double- and triple- and quadruple-crosses, gangsters, drug lords and the American aristocracy. Ultimately, the series offers up a potent critique of the lust for power, the nearly irresistible drive for various forms of control: money, sexuality, prestige. Throughout its length, the large cast gathers into nebulous alliances, and Azzarello cleverly keeps the multiple plots and subplots up in the air without ever sacrificing characterization or his underlying themes about greed and corruption. Taken as a whole, 100 Bullets is both an utterly engrossing crime/conspiracy thriller and a cogent American satire. [buy] | [buy] | [buy]

by Daniel Clowes, 2004

The 23rd (and final, as of now) issue of Daniel Clowes' long-running series Eightball is a self-contained epic in miniature, poking at superhero archetypes, with their ideas about "responsibility" and "right," in order to tell a quiet, maudlin story of loneliness and self-isolation. For Clowes' characters, great power — a "death ray" that can zap anyone out of existence, but which only works for the loner protagonist Andy — never really manages to make things better or change their lives in any appreciable way. Instead, while imagining life as a costumed adventurer putting things right, Andy uses his death ray in small, petty, inconsequential ways, because basically he's a small, petty, inconsequential man. This dark, cynical vision is bolstered by Clowes' clean, austere artistry, particularly his striking use of color, utilizing an array of palettes to convey various memories, fantasies and emotional states. The layout is intriguing as well, eventually drawing together the strands of narrative through the use of seemingly disconnected shorter strips, in numerous styles and from a multitude of perspectives. It's this multiplicity that makes the book more than just another sadsack loser tale. Clowes insists on incorporating the lives of others into Andy's isolated world, allowing the story's ripples to fan out beyond the narrow confines of simple genre parody. Instead, The Death Ray is a poignant lament, and a blistering portrayal of the ways in which people's simplistic understanding of life, love and happiness prevent them from even imagining ambitions beyond their immediate vicinity. [buy]

by Lynda Barry, 2008

What It Is is a wonderfully inspirational book, a book that's overflowing with creativity and generosity. Barry has essentially crafted a very aesthetically rich "how to" volume that seeks to get people excited about writing and drawing and inventing their own stories. The book is divided into several sections. In the first, Barry alternates between short comics that relate stories from her childhood and collage sequences in which dense patchwork constructions of text and images raise basic questions about memory, imagination, creativity, aesthetics and thought. Barry is constantly suggesting provocative ideas, offering up challenges to the reader, and her tightly packed pages defy traditional reading. Instead, the eye flows freely around her pages, picking up various threads and following them from one idea to the next, letting her web of associations and questions evoke all sorts of images and concepts. This is the book's longest segment, but she follows it with two shorter "how to" sections, in which she lays out several exercises intended to jumpstart creativity and get would-be writers or artists used to the process of telling stories and exploiting the rich veins of memory. Finally, there's an excerpt from Barry's own sketchbook exercises and margin notes. The whole thing would be reminiscent of those vaguely New Agey "anyone can write" motivational seminars, except that Barry has such enthusiasm, and such restless creativity in every page she crafts, that her example is genuinely inspiring and beautiful. [buy]

by Kiyohiko Azuma, 2003-ongoing

There are few comics as purely joyful and exuberant as Yotsuba&!, a series that's unusual for generating a surprising amount of substance from an especially slight premise. The title character, Yotsuba, is a very happy four-year girl who lives with her adoptive father, a slacker who doesn't always seem to be paying the most careful attention to his perpetually curious, cheerful, somewhat strange little daughter. Yotsuba might be four, but her behavior could best be described as that of a newborn who can talk: she is fascinated by and curious about everything, and she approaches each new discovery with the wide-eyed, gape-jawed, squealing-with-delight reaction it deserves. The book's title thus provides its structure as well. Each more-or-less self-contained chapter revolves around Yotsuba's encounters with a variety of everyday objects, places, concepts and people: Yotsuba & TV, Yotsuba & Shopping, Yotsuba & Drawing, even Yotsuba & Global Warming. The framework is simple, but allows for near-infinite variations. Yotsuba invariably encounters something and then milks every bit of nuance and emotional catharsis from the experience, reacting to life with a voracious and seemingly inexhaustible supply of joy and pleasure. As her bemused father says at one point, smiling with resignation, nothing ever gets Yotsuba down, while seemingly everything surprises and delights her. Kiyohiko Azuma documents Yotsuba's domestic adventures with a clean, attractive style, shifting ably from semi-realist depictions of the natural world to the cartoony exaggerations of Yotsuba at her most emotional. And the book is frequently hilarious; Azuma has a keen comic timing, and a good sense of body language, so that he sets up visual gags perfectly through the rhythms of his panels. These books present a character who enjoys life to its fullest, who appreciates the splendors of the world, of other people, of the simple delights just waiting everywhere to overcome us when we're not expecting it. Within this deceptively simple work is an ode to taking life as it comes and appreciating every day as though the world had been made anew, just for us, every morning. [buy] | [buy]

by Joshua Cotter, 2005-2008

Skyscrapers of the Midwest is Joshua Cotter's loose blend of autobiography and fantasy as a way of evoking the experience of a typical middle American childhood, presumably his own. But instead of assuming a direct autobiographical mode, Cotter turns himself and the rest of his family into anthropomorphized cats — and then further abstracts them by spending much of the book within the head of the deliberately unnamed protagonist, who frequently imagines himself as robot superhero Nova Stealth. A giant-size Nova Stealth also appears as a rather melancholy incarnation of God, a shambling, outdated model who seems to be just going through the motions in continuing to dole out life and death. Obviously, Cotter's ambitions extend beyond mere quotidian slice-of-life drama; his book's clever shifts between stylistic modes reflect a boldly experimental sensibility and an eagerness to visualize childhood's slights and wounds through a child's imaginative mind. As a result, the book is packed with great sequences, with devastating insights, heartbreaking incidents and moments of surprising humor. At the book's climax, Cotter flows so brilliantly from a comic book-inspired fever dream into a poignant vision of the afterlife that this sequence — in which the central protagonist is depicted solely as a silent robot — is utterly overwhelming. [buy]

by C.F., 2007-ongoing

Powr Mastrs is the first real long-form work by artist C.F. (also known as the noise musician Kites). It is an exercise in sci-fi/fantasy world-building, establishing a complicated fictional world with its own rules of magic and technology, and a large interlocking set of characters who perform arcane rituals, reference seemingly rich pasts, and engage in various plots, adventures and daily routines. Drawn in C.F.'s distinctive minimal style, these stories read as though the bored margin doodlings of a high school have come to life, with details filling in and characters acquiring personalities and back stories of their own. C.F.'s faux-naif style, stripped-down and with a great deal of white space, lends an air of childlike enthusiasm and imagination to his stories. With the second volume, C.F. introduced spot watercolor to his black-and-white drawings, a welcome addition since the best of his previous work has always exploited his feel for color. In these first two volumes, it still feels like C.F. is setting the groundwork for a complex epic to come, introducing characters and establishing relationships. But on the other hand one can equally easily imagine a whole series like this, in which grand dramas are subsumed by the surreal daily life of this imaginary land. [buy] | [buy]

by Andrei Molotiu (editor) & various, 2009

Abstract Comics is an important book because it gathers in one place a persuasive argument for thinking about comics, not in terms of narrative or even figuration, but as pure sequences of images with complicated and ambiguous relationships between one image and the next. Editor Andrei Molotiu believes firmly in abstract comics — comics with no narrative throughline or even "unified narrative space," as his introduction puts it. The anthology then presents an overview of this nascent field, ranging from freshly commissioned pieces to classic examples, and encompassing artists who have never worked in the form before, artists whose work has occasionally flirted with abstraction, and those who have, mostly in recent years, created whole bodies of work meeting Molotiu's definition of abstract comics. They are comics where the sequence is everything, where the pure flow of images is the whole content of the experience. These pieces cannot really be "read" in the conventional sense, but rather challenge viewers to come up with whole new ways of appreciating and understanding them, encouraging a reading experience somewhere between looking at a painting and reading a sequential narrative. Maybe it's the experience of looking at a series of paintings in order.

In any event, the book features some truly stunning and imaginative work: the organic blobs of Anders Pearson, the Duchampesque watercolor scrawls of Casey Camp, Henrik Rehr's shifting currents of densely packed lines, Mike Getsiv's suggestive, boldly colored swirls, Warren Craghead and Richard Hahn's mastery of panel rhythms, the unexpected visual gag inserted into Geoff Grogan's multimedia collage, Alexey Sokolin's forbidding stormclouds of black scratching, Andy Bleck's sensual scribble figures, Derik Badman's renderings of only background fragments from old Tarzan comics, the multiple contributors who turned in dense, virtuoso ink pieces towards the end of the book. Not everything here is at the same high level, but it's a surprisingly consistent anthology, unified by its theme and Molotiu's commitment to including pieces that advance his definition of this particular approach to comics. What's best about the book is how open its territory ultimately is, how much room it leaves for artists to come up with their own ideas about abstraction and sequence. It is a truly groundbreaking book that points the way towards a whole new conception of comics and challenges readers and artists alike to explore this new area. [buy]

by David Mazzucchelli, 2009

David Mazzucchelli is a master of comics form, so his first long-form work is of course reason to rejoice. Asterios Polyp is the work that everyone has been waiting for from Mazzucchelli, a formalist masterpiece whose cartooning gestures and densely layered sight gags provide visual delight on nearly every page. The title character is a pompous failed architect who, wallowing in self-pity following his divorce from his beloved Hana, sets off to abandon his former life, while compulsively returning to the past in painful memories and dreams. Ostensibly narrated by Asterios' stillborn twin, who periodically shows up as a dotted-line absence standing next to his living brother — yes, this is a very high-concept work — the book deploys one bold storytelling device after another as Mazzucchelli cleverly probes the relationship between Asterios and Hana. One of the book's best devices is the way every character is drawn in a subtly different style, complete with distinctively varied font styles for their dialogue. Thus the hard lines of Asterios and the fluid curves of Hana clearly set them up as opposites, as does the fact that, during their first meeting and on occasion afterwards, Asterios is drawn as a conglomeration of blue polygons while Hana is red and sketchy. When they're connecting and falling in love, Mazzucchelli depicts their two worlds coming together, her red crosshatching filling in his polygons, his clean blue lines infiltrating her more rounded form. It's an elegant visual metaphor for the idea that each individual sees the world differently, and that reconciling two different worldviews in a relationship can be a great challenge. Mazzucchelli packs the book with clever visual touches like this, casually evoking Will Eisner or Frank King with his layouts, or drawing a train worker's irate word balloon so it resembles the MTA logo, or using a dotted line to fill in the missing portion of a broken beer bottle. Each page offers up surprises and flights of fancy, and Mazzucchelli's panels are stuffed with clever details that enrich his characters, fill in the narrative, or simply offer up a diverting chuckle. It's a fun, innovative book, not so much for its story (which is rather typical at heart) but for the ways in which Mazzucchelli breathes new life into familiar situations and characters, simply through the grace and beauty of his art. [buy]

The second part of this list, encompassing numbers 40-21, has now been posted here. The top 20 is here.