PG Tips - The Best Of 2010:
Something Old, New, Borrowed & Blue
Rio de Janeiro: Me (centre) with Melinda Gebbie (left).
The turning of the year and a time once more to look back and to look forward, but few comics, or anything really, in 2010 could hope to beat this amazing Saturday night and Sunday morning I spent in Rio de Janeiro, when Melinda Gebbie (left), Kevin O’Neill and other guests of Rio Comicon danced and sang along with hundreds of favela revellers at a huge, loud, joyful carnival rehearsal. Massive thanks to Roberto Ribeiro, Ricky Goodwin, Ana Alexandrino who took this photo, ace translator Carlos Batista, and Edna Lopes from the samba school for making this life-affirming experience possible. So here’s my overview of some of the comics highlights from the Old Year, and I’ll also drop in a few comics highlights to look forward to in the New Year.
William Hearst fanfared The American Humorist, his new comic supplement free with his Sunday newspapers on December 12, 1897, with the boast: “Eight Pages of Polychromatic Effulgence that Make The Rainbow Look Like a Lead Pipe.” When it comes to reprintings of America’s finest newspaper strips in 2010, frankly we are being spoilt with an embarrassment of riches. Quite apart from affording these multiple tomes, the other problem is finding shelf, table or floor space to put them. This year Fantagraphics added to its range, which already encompasses: Krazy Kat by George Herriman, which they have gone back to the first Sunday pages for new Ware-designed editions; Prince Valiant, shot mainly from Hal Foster‘s own colour engraving proofs but, to my eyes, not quite as pin-sharp on the linework and printing as I’ve seen elsewhere; Segar‘s superb sailor-man Popeye, and much I as I love Jacob Covey’s book design, with each of the six volumes eventually spelling out P.O.P.E.Y.E on the spines when lined up, it means that the six copies of the first four volumes currently on Gosh’s bookshelves spell out POO PEE!; and Peanuts, of course, issued a bit later in the UK from Canongate who are up to 1966 now.
Fantagraphics’ handsomest addition by far in 2010 was Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune, the first time we’ve been able to appreciate a whole run of Roy Crane‘s boisterous Sunday pages in their crisp, coloured splendour. Coming this year from FBI are two funny animal legends, the complete dailies and Sundays of Walt Kelly‘s Pogo and Floyd Gottfredson‘s Mickey Mouse, plus the first of a chunky helping of Ernie Bushmiller‘s Nancy.
In 2010, Sunday Press Books followed up their life-sized, coffee-table-sized giant hardbacks of Little Nemo and Gasoline Alley Sundays with a grand and glorious gathering of 135 Krazy Kat whole pages from 1916-1944 plus dozens more examples from his other earlier strip series. Meanwhile, to join their excellent softback compilations of glamorous, realistically drawn soap opera comics, Mary Perkins: On Stage and The Heart of Juliet Jones, Classic Comics Press came through again with the first volume of Big Ben Bolt, the punchy boxing serial created by John Cullen Murphy who went on to assist and then take over from Hal Foster on Prince Valiant. CCP’s next new series is 2011 will be The Cisco Kid by dashing Argentine draughtsman José Luis Salinas, while Frank Godwin’s Rusty Riley waits in the wings as they track down more source material to print from.
Dark Horse’s 2010 entries in the strip-mining field ranged from the Conan the Barbarian strips written by Roy Thomas and Doug Moench and drawn by regulars from Marvel’s comic book version, such as John Buscema, Ernie Chan and Alfredo Alcala, and the three-year run of the lost science fiction masterwork Jet Scott by Sheldon Stark and Jerry Robinson. Over at Hermes Press, meanwhile, came some smart but somewhat pricey hardback compilations of Buck Rogers and The Phantom, and they have just announced for next June Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, Reporter (whose own daily is being concluded on January 2, 2011), and another outing for Milton Caniff’s Armed Forces morale booster Male Call. Though I’ve yet to see them, Tony Raiola’s long-running outfit Pacific Comics Club has announced two new volumes of Frank Godwin’s adventuress Connie from 1939.
From Canada, Drawn & Quarterly served up Doug Wright‘s Nipper and will resume next April with the long-awaited fifth volume of Frank King‘s Walt & Skeezix designed by Ware, and the first of the post-Tove Jansson Moomin strips crafted by her brother Lars for the London Evening News. And a late-notice celebrity visitor to London in December was Garry Trudeau, here to promote the slab-like 40th anniversary Doonesbury Retrospective from Andrews McMeel Publishing (I caught his chat with Philip Dodd on Radio 3’s Night Waves). This is much more than just a Best-Of, with Trudeau’s own detailed introductory commentary, 18 expert essays and a four-page foldout charting the cast’s complex web of relationships.
Hard to top, but still, for me the highest accolades must go to IDW and Dean Mullaney’s team at The Library of American Comics. Essential additions this year to their sturdy line led by Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, King Aroo and Rip Kirby include: a probably one-off compendium of George McManus’s exquisite Art Deco gem Bringing Up Father, following Jiggs, Maggie and daughter Nora on a ten-month transamerican tour ‘From Sea to Shining Sea’; Al Capp’s L’il Abner embarking on another reprint run; and the first in a series of Chic Young’s highly popular comedy soap Blondie.
Surveying all this production, it’s a close call, but for me 2010’s prize for the most outstanding comic strip archivists, restorers and repackagers of America’s newsprint comics heritage goes to IDW’s re-presenting Cliff Sterret‘s Polly and Her Pals Sunday pages in such a beautiful oversized hardback collection and in all their “Polly-Chromatic Effulgence”. Now you may have already bought Rick Marschall’s The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990-1991), the best up until now, which covered from January 3rd 1926 to February 10th 1929 but managed only two volumes out of a proposed series of four.
You may not be aware that in 2005, French publisher Thierry Groensteen at Editions de l’An 2, picked up the baton and continued to reprint Sterrett’s Sundays in the same format as Marschall’s volumes, starting from the next week, February 17th 1929 through to December 28th 1930. One revelation here is a short atypical sequence of a continuing storyline across ten episodes between August 4th and October 6th 1929, in which Polly’s Pop, Sam, quits the family home and tries the outdoors life of a tramp. The only snag is that all these wonderful pages are published in French (why didn’t someone in America do an English co-edtion of this third volume?). The bonus material, which is in English, presents seven Sundays between 1913 and 1925 to give an idea of how Sterrett’s art changed, as well as a selection of eight of the very last Sundays (shrunk by that time to half-tabloid size and shown here uncoloured), dated between June 22nd and October 26th, which Sterrett had drawn well in advance but were left unpublished after his death and the cancellation of the strip.
Even if you have these three volumes already, you need IDW’s sumptuous and definitive new edition. The reproduction is so much sharper and cleaner than the Marschall scans, several of which suffer from blemishes of printing or folded and faded newsprint. The scale is also considerably bigger, close to their original full scale, allowing you to really enter each panel and explore Polly’s delightfully zany world. Editor Mullaney opens with the very first Polly Sunday from 1913 and follows this with twenty examples, two from each of the next years, 1914-1923, which reveal year-by-year Sterrett’s creative evolution. Many of his stylisms and tropes are already there: zigzagging lightning bolts; loudly patterned fabrics; the crescent moon, often horizontal like a big yellow smile in the sky; and an increasing pleasure in modernist design.
And then, the complete run gets underway from November 30th 1924 through to Christmas Day 1927. The biggest surprise here is Mullaney and his team’s discovery that Sterrett took, as Jeet Heer writes in his illuminating introduction, “...an unannounced long break from drawing Polly. For more than half a year, from April 19 to November 15, 1925, the Sunday pages were drawn - and presumably written - by ghost artists.” Six of these thirty-one non-Sterrett Sundays are shown here and the difference is detectable, and not just because they are unsigned by Sterrett. Heer can only speculate about this mysterious sabbatical, as next to nothing is known. Facts about Sterrett’s life are few, though we know that he had previously taken a European family holiday in 1923. What does become clear from the subsequent pages is that Sterrett returned with renewed vigour and vision which saw his drawing growing wilder and more and more in tune with the modern art of the times. Heer discusses Sterrett’s friendship with leading modernist painters Bernard Karfiol and Yasuo Kuniyoshi and his aesthetic ties to Japanese art and prints.
Sterrett’s strips also have huge aesthetic appeal in their own right, but they are not only graphically playful and refined. Even amid his more distorted, exaggerated, almost abstract, flights of fancy, he is also a sparkling comedy writer and observer of human nature. So, for instance, in this episode from March 20th 1927, the dialogue is wise and witty, as Polly’s cough wakes up her parents and Paw stumbles about finding a cough drop for her, waking up the whole household. All we see, however, of these out-of-view shenanigans is the family’s poor agitated, animated pissycat, reacting in the moonlight to all this hoohah, before it’s ‘Snap!’, lights out, and everyone falls back to sleep again. I also love the wordless ‘topper’ strip here, Dot & Dash, and the way our pup and kittie marvel as the early spring weather seems to thaw out, only to snap back again. It is pure pleasure to get to know Sterrett’s ‘Thoroughly Modern Polly’ and her funky and mainly functional family and to get into the swing of the uptempo jazziness of their Twenties lifestyle, their slang, the social and sexual changes. You can feel the tensions and excitement of America rushing headlong into modernity and beyond.
There’s also been a plethora in 2010 of more or less deluxe (ie expensive) repackagings of American comic books, from the earliest Golden Age through to very recent vintage, from Archives, Essentials and Showcases to remastered, oversized Absolute editions. Of these, I’d pick out Dan Nadel‘s Art in Time, which was never going to equal the revelations of his Art Out of Time but it’s still a wholly worthwhile gatherum of underappreciated obscura. Titan Books came through with their bumper book of Simon & Kirby Superheroes, and it’s good to see DC pursuing their own Simon & Kirby classics with Boy Commandoes, though neither publisher seems to handle the colour balance all that well, with Titan’s growing too bright and DC’s too dull. I’m not convinced that all of this material really deserves the most luxurious trappings, to be honest. These are high-ticket purchases, so it’s worth keeping a lookout because the poorer-selling $50-60 archives sometimes get dramatically discounted. One fun bargain I enjoyed in 2010 was the second Journey into Mystery volume, compiling Atlas (Fifties Marvel) horror comics from before the crackdown by the Comics Code Authority, including some surprisingly well-drawn tales by Paul Reinman and, would you believe, Vince Colletta?
Elsewhere, I’d also steer you towards several of Craig Yoe‘s burgeoning range, again from IDW, and in particular, as my Joint Best Comic Book Reprints of 2010, his significant recoveries of Milt Gross’s screwball wackiness in The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story and Dick Briefer’s funny and scary renditions of Frankenstein, both accompanied by Yoe’s informative biographical intros, always illustrated with intriguing rarities from the Chateau Yoe vaults. Looking ahead, one likely Best Reprint of 2011 will be first volume, at long last, of DC’s Sugar & Spike. For 98 issues between 1956 and 1971, plus a special 99th issue in 1992, the effervescent Sheldon Mayer turned baby talk into a complex language all its own, decades earlier and far funnier and cleverer than Rugrats.
On the international ‘reprint’ front, as in translations into English of ‘old’, ie not very recent, material from Europe, I would choose Blacksad by Canales & Guarnido from Dark Horse giving us the untranslated third album (and there’s a fourth, I understand!), IDW’s ongoing series of Abuli & Bernet’s venal Torpedo which will finally get into some previously untranslated stories, and Cinebook’s commitment to issuing the entirety of Van Hamme & Vance‘s Belgian mega-thriller XIII in bimonthly volumes till 2013. But ahead of all of these, the standout Euro-classic of 2010 must be the long-awaited complete It Was The War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi from Fantagraphics, still by far his greatest masterpiece.
And Best Manga Reprint? Vertical’s ongoing Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka and his Ayako big single volume are gems, of course, as were Tatsumi‘s 1950s Black Blizzard proto-noir and Oji Suzuki‘s A Single Match both from Drawn & Quarterly. But in the end, my choices for equal first position are: Top Shelf’s generous survey, edited by Sean Michael Wilson and compiled by AX editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa, of the experimental and eccentric from the amazing magazine AX (honestly an unbiased choice, even though I did write the intro!) and the wonderful short stories in A Drunken Dream & Other Stories, spanning the career of shojo legend Moto Hagio from Fantagraphics. And 2011 will bring us a second helping of AX and at last the first English edition of the award-winning works of Shigeru Mizuki.
Many of our greatest English-language graphic novelists have been on top form again throughout last year originating graphic novels. We kicked off 2010 with Joe Sacco‘s Footnotes in Gaza, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill‘s first episode of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century and Jim Woodring‘s Weathercraft, through Daniel Clowes’ Wilson, Carol Tyler‘s You’ll Never Know Vol 2: Collareral Damage, and Eddie Campbell‘s The Playwright (with Daren White), and concluding the year with Charles Burns’ Xed Out, Bryan Talbot‘s second Grandville and Chris Ware‘s latest Acme Novelty Library: Lint. Phew, what a line-up. It’s so hard to choose between them, as their creators are all at the top of their game, so why single out any one of these, when we can celebrate and enjoy all nine of these stellar original works?
Putting those big names to one side and surveying some of the less well-established or still up-and-coming names, I found Cathy Malkasian‘s Temperance equally touching and chilling, James Sturm‘s Market Day his finest yet, Dash Shaw‘s Bodyworld unsettling and superior to his rather overpraised Bottomless Belly Button, and Sam Hiti‘s return, Death-Day, a dark dose of Kirbyesque future-war absurdity. Jason Shiga‘s Meanwhile, with its multi-path flaps offering alternative readings, must be one of last year’s smartest reinventions of the printed page and book formats. Plenty more creators offered some great material but perhaps two stand out most to me. First, the most heart-warming of them all was Special Exits (Fantagraphics), the much-missed underground comix artist Joyce Farmer‘s account of her coping with and caring for her ailing parents. This strikes home to most people, as all of us age and as our parents age. And secondly, the late 2000AD illustrator John Hicklenton‘s 100 Months from Cutting Edge Press, in which he transmutes his spectrum of feelings about his sufferings and inevitable death from Multiple Sclerosis into the most viscerally soul-baring graphic novel of the year.
As for newcomers this year, novices with their very first outings, I’d single out Darryl Cunningham‘s Psychiatric Tales as a truly memorable memoir. Now it’s true, Darryl has been published in the UK comics scene in the past, but this really marked his return to the field, his creative renaissance and his much-deserved breakthrough (Bloomsbury US and Coconino Press in Italy are doing their own editions in 2011). Brick is a veteran too but Depresso stands out as a fearless first foray into book-length semi-autobiography. Julian Hanshaw was another Cape discovery to follow, in The Art of Pho. I also found Brooke A. Allen‘s A Home For My Easter utterly beguiling, and Jed McGowan in Lone Pine another talent to watch, while out of all of the ‘Definitely First Class’ DFC Library, like many people I was bowled over by Ben Heggarty and Adam Brockbank‘s electrifyingly vivid mythology, MeZolith. And I would recommend highly: Belle Yang‘s account of her family’s history in China, Forget Sorrow; the unique Canadian docu-comic Kenk by Rich Poplak & artist Nick Marinkovich, who uses a totally appropriate punk-photocopy-collage style based on hours of filmed interviews to record the rebel, anti-hero eco-radical and obsessive bicycle-thief, Igor Kenk; and the Nobrow compact hardbacks by British printmaker Jon McNaught, Birchfield Close and Pebble Island, both of them sublime, subtle miniatures.
Duncan The Wonder Dog
By far the most demanding, and rewarding debuts of 2010, again in equal place, were Walking The Dog by David Hughes from Cape and Duncan The Wonder Dog by Adam Hines from AdHouse Books. Both with canny canine connections and both lengthy, ambitious opuses. My only misgiving with Duncan is the rather subdued, even murky, print quality in places, caused perhaps by the absorbent matt paper, which, based on fine-quality online scans of some pages I have seen, has resulted in a loss of some of the richness and subtleties of grey tones and fine detailing. But this should not deter you from discovering this. Both authors are taking comics into fresh territories of ideas and expression.
As for the best new translations of recent non-Anglophone works, my high ratings go to King Of The Flies by Mezzo & Pirus and Toys in the Basement by Blanquet from Fantagraphics, Sleepyheads by Randall C. from Blank Slate, The Troll King by Kohlbeinn Karlsson from Top Shelf, Kioskerman’s Eden and Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place from Drawn & Quarterly (although the latter for me was let down by its shrunken format and lower quailty print and paper when compared to Oog Achtend’s Flemish edition). On the manga front, as well as several great continuing series like Children of the Sea and 20th Century Boys, my other tips would be the ongoing mountaineering manga The Summit of the Gods by Yukemakura Baku & Jiro Taniguchi from Fanfare Ponent Mon and Saturn Apartments and Bakuman, new from Viz. In the end, out of all of these, in equal top place in my view in this category, come The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane from First Second and Dance by the Light of the Moon by Judith Vanistendael from SelfMadehero, both artists making their black inkwork shimmer with contrasting moods and tender emotions.
In this section, I am looking at comics ‘borrowing’ from pre-existing sources. Literary adaptations continue to be a major trend and, in theory, reduced risk for publishers. SelfMadeHero also provided some first-rate interpretations in 2010 that really enhanced your enjoyment of the original texts, whether you are already familiar with them or not. Catherine Anyango impressed me the most for her textural, oppressive, almost “humid” graphics for the Heart of Darkness, adapted by David Zane Mairowitz. I was finally a bit less convinced by Audrey Niffenegger‘s own graphic novelisation of her short story The Night Bookmobile, perhaps due to awkwardness with the medium in places and the more literal illustrations which seemed not to add a great deal to her excellent wordcraft. I preferred her earlier, more nuanced drawings for her original visual novels The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress, all from Jonathan Cape in the UK.
Darwyn Cooke and Richard Stark (alias Donald Westlake) make perfect partners in crime again, as proved by The Outfit, Cooke’s second slick Parker adaption of four. Another perfect marriage was made between Oscar Wilde and American artist Jon Macy in his adaptation of the early same sex novel Teleny, attributed to Wilde and his circle and first published clandestinely in 1893. In Teleny and Camille from Northwest Comics, Macy brilliantly captures this scandalising love story’s heady sensuality and the Victorian climate of manners, morals and class, while using an autobiographical prologue and epilogue to contrast the present day and to change the two lovers’ tragic fates and give them his own happy ending. In this way, Macy now joins Wilde’s circle as the latest to work on this collaboration.
Slog’s Dad: Art by Dave McKean
Opinions seem to be divided over Joann Sfar‘s version of The Little Prince and this is understandable with such a cherished favourite, but in the end it won me over and comes a close second in this category. I am much more dubious about apparent plans to create new French animated cartoons based on Saint-Exupéry’s character. My favourite ‘borrowing’ of 2010 is Slog’s Dad (Walker), reuniting David Almond and Dave McKean. Rather than offering us one definitive visualisation of this small, emotionally charged tale of a son who believes his dead father has returned to him in the park for one last visit, McKean crafts several different versions. Each comic sequence is kept entirely separate from Almond’s prose and dropped in as appropriate to interrupt and interact with Almond’s totally convincing narration by one of Slog’s teenage pals. Who do you believe? Which version do you believe? Not a believer himself in the supernatural or the afterlife, McKean felt uncomfortable presenting only one ‘true’ interpretation and this is his inspired solution. As only the finest adaptations can do, this enriches and expands its source material, making it deeper than it was before.
AND SOMETHING BLUE
For this section, I am defining ‘blue’ in terms of the erotic or sexually charged (and maybe a bit rude as in ‘blue’ jokes). For anyone after a quality sampler of comics ‘to tickle the libido and the mind’ , I’d steer you to Last Gasp‘s reliable and wide-ranging third annual anthology of Best Erotic Comics. Another highpoint in 2010 was the overdue compilation of some of the strongest homoerotic comics by Zack alias Oliver Frey in Biker Boy. The good news is that the first printing sold out in only a month or two so publishers Bruno Gmünder are reprinting it in a larger format, and readying Hot For Boys, a second compilation, for next April.
But for something provocative and even jaw-dropping, I’d single out The Madwoman of The Sacred Heart by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius. The Humanoids finally let us read their whole wild, blasphemous, sacrilegious three-volume assault on sexual and religious extremism. Back in 1996, Dark Horse issued only the first two parts and in black and white in a mean small paperback with overly bold hand-lettering by none other than Dave Cooper. This Humanoids volume is in colour, in a larger hardback, rather clumsily lettered in an unchanging computer font, losing all impact and emphases and leaving some balloons too aerated, but now Anglophones can read the third and final part. This episode is oddly formatted with four rows of panels per page compared to three in the first two parts. As a result, there is too much story per page and the panels seem cramped - it’s a shame that nobody thought to give Moebius more pages to tell the story more comfortably in. It’s hard to imagine any American publisher these days (except maybe Last Gasp) daring to touch such sensitive material as this - not so much due to some bizarre sex scenes but more due to the rude religious outrages. Dark Horse cautiously cropped the first book’s cover so as not to show the woman exposing her breasts beneath her crucifix and even the Humanoids decided to avoid showing this, even inside. By the way, teaming with Milo Manara, Jodorowsky continues to poke at sex and religion in his historical saga on the poisoner family, Borgia. American Heavy Metal have issued three volumes of this so far and a fourth and final should be due in English next year.
Finally, one of the most controversial adult graphic novels of 2011 will surely be Chester Brown‘s new, original, 272-page confessional Paying For It, in which, as Drawn & Quarterly explain, “Brown calmly lays out the facts of how he became not only a willing participant in but also a vocal proponent of one of the world’s most hot-button topics - prostitution. Paying For It offers an entirely contemporary exploration of sex work - from the timid john who rides his bike to meet his escorts, wonders how to tip so as not to offend, and reads Dan Savage for advice, to the modern-day transactions complete with online reviews, seemingly willing participants, and clean apartments devoid of clichéd street corners, drugs, or pimps.” This launches in May at the Toronto Comic Art Festival.
As this hopefully shows, the harvest was bountiful again over these past twelve months. In the coming week or two, look out for another of my annual ‘Best of the Year’ round-ups of international perspectives from my global correspondents, so we can all discover what has made 2010 memorable in comics around the world. And join me throughout 2011 for many more pleasures and discoveries to come.Posted: January 2, 2011