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PG Tips - Best of 2012:

The End of Literature?


Picture Post, 1954 Click image to enlarge

How far we have come. Some sixty years ago, an unlikely alliance of the British Communist Party and the Church of England was campaigning to ban imported or reprinted American comic books, detecting an apparently damaging influence on impressionable minds. Among their readers was a young Posy Simmonds. She was so struck by their lurid thrills, she began creating her own with titles like Bullet Vengeance and Red Dagger. Who would have imagined that in 2004, on the strength of her newspaper strips, children’s books and graphic novels, Simmonds would be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature?

Negative scare-mongering press coverage at that time included this feature from Picture Post on November 20th 1954 (above). The Times Literary Supplement of May 29th 1953 responded to the period’s media panic in an article entitled ‘The Art of an Unknown Future’, kindly brought to my attention by my Dutch friend Huib van Opstal, comics and cultural historian, Hergé biographer and 1001 Comics contributor. This fascinating article is anonymous, as all TLS features were until 1974, but a search of the payment records reveals its author to be none other than George Mikes, famous for How To Be An Alien.

Mikes asserted: “Though it may be questionable whether comic strips do or do not create fear, anxiety and criminal tendencies, it seems to be beyond doubt that they create mental laziness and stupidity.” He poo-poohed the idea of the medium ever producing a masterpiece: “Some critics say that the comic strips may give birth even to great poetry and that they should be given a chance. This claim is more than doubtful; and the new form has had its chance. It is a novelty more than half a century old.” In fact, this “novelty” arguably has its origins in cave paintings, as Mikes acknowledged in his concluding warning: “Literature began with comic strips; if we are not careful, it may also end with them”.

This doomsayer’s “Unknown Future” has not yet come to pass - quite the opposite. As an example of another tipping point in the increasing recognition of graphic literature by the British literary establishment, earlier this month the Costa biography prize went to Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which I reviewed for the TLS here. Robert Macfarlane, new chairman of the Man Booker Prize, responded by saying he was open to publishers submitting graphic novels for 2013’s Prize. Stranger things have happened. In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer, while Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan scooped The Guardian’s First Novel prize in 2001. Eleven years on, the three graphic novels, which I have chosen after much deliberation as my best of last year published in Britain, show the form to be in particularly rude health here.

In my top place comes Joff Winterhart and his debut Days of Bagnold Summer, which was nominated for the Costa novel award but didn’t win. Winterhart tells the story of six strained summer weeks shared between a long-haired teenage Heavy Metal fan and his single-parent librarian mother, using a series of single-page, six-panel vignettes. Winterhart’s pithy dialogue and narration and perceptive cartooning capture their awkward communications across more of a canyon than a gap between generations. Despite this, in subtle moments he discloses the maternal and filial bonds that persist between them and builds surprising empathy for their day-to-day struggles. Prejudices persist among critics, of course, and John Walsh in The Independent belittled graphic novels recently by asserting that, “Good novels are made of words, without drawings that helpfully show the expressions on characters’ faces”, but Winterhart is an observant writer in text and in pictures, and he knows full well how to bring out the best in both of them.


Days of Bagnold Summer, Page 1 Click image to enlarge

The same is true of Glyn Dillon in The Nao of Brown, in second position. Dillon has illustrated other people’s scripts, but this is his first solo work. Nao is a ‘hafu’ or half-Japanese young woman, who suffers obsessive-compulsive disorder, which give rise to sudden floods of morbid imagination. Riding her bike, she visualises herself mowing down an innocent boy; on a plane, she can’t stop thinking about opening the emergency door (below). For the reader, as for Nao, these nightmares can spring up out of nowhere, conveyed by a jolting cut from one panel or page to the next, from normality to nightmare. On other occasions, Dillon signals them with a visual clue - for example, when he fills up his drawing of Nao with solid red and then turns her white as she literally blanks out and retreats into herself.

Everything changes when Nao meets Gregory, a big, burly, bearded washing-machine repairman. He becomes Nao’s new obsession because he resembles her favourite fictional character, the ‘Nothing’ from ‘Ichi’, a Japanese manga and anime series which Dillon has invented for this book. The unlikely pair’s relationship develops, though not without tensions as each harbours secrets from the other. Parallel to this main narrative, which Dillon pencils more loosely and paints in watercolours, is a fantasy based on the ‘Ichi’ mythos, illustrated in tight ink and flat colours against black pages. ‘Ichi’ serves as an allegorical commentary on Nao’s troubled self-esteem and at one critical point the two storyworlds collide to startling effect, as Nao’s head becomes encased like a conker inside a huge spiney shell.

In 1953 George Mikes described comics inaccurately as ‘...a kind of literature not to be read, only looked at’, because like many he overlooks the powerful ways the medium also employs words, not only for their meaning and poetry but their physical form too. When the protagonist of When David Lost His Voice by Belgian author Judith Vanistendael is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, he momentarily zones out and we see the doctor and his speech balloon calling out to David lose all colour and partially dissolve. Later, we both see and read the actual letters between his young daughter Tamar and her friend Max as they discuss how to mummify her Dad. Never one for expressing himself much, David ends up unable to speak at all and instead writes notes. He gives one to Tamar, who rolls it up inside a small vial which she wears round her neck. Before ‘morphine, a huge, dark monster, swallows me up’, David spends one last night of clarity writing note after note to his wife Paula. ‘My brain is doing the thinking, and my hand is doing the talking…’ In conveying the effects of cancer on David and all of his relationships, Vanistendael’s quietly overwhelming portrait understands precisely what to tell and what to show.

Vanistendael will be talking about When David Lost His Voice, originally published in French by Éditions du Lombard, when she visits Britain again all next week as part of a six-city tour, High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries, from January 14th to 19th, concluding in London.

These exemplary graphic novels surfaced as my final Top Three of those published in the UK in 2012 from a particularly strong and long list of contenders. All this flourishing creativity (and the very fact that I can review graphic novels in the TLS itself) demonstrate that, far from being ‘The Art of an Unknown Future’, or leading inexorably to the end of literature, as George Mikes predicted six decades ago, comics can stand tall today as neither solely art nor literature but as a unique autonomous medium, with a brilliant present and even brighter future ahead.

 

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And here are some of my other choices for Best Comics of 2012:

Best Autobiography/Biography:

I adored Simone Lia’s Please God, Find Me A Husband, deeply funny and spiritual at the same time, and Nye Wright’s surreal yet realistic avatar of a blue minotaur finding his way out of the labyrinth of his Dad’s dying days in Things To Do In A Retirement Trailer Home Trailer Park. Mary Talbot’s award-winning blend of autobiography and biography, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes was another stand-out and I rave-reviewed all three for the TLS here. I’ve yet to properly read and review them, but David Lasky’s The Carter Family, Joseph Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and The Trials of Helen Keller and the epic and extraordinary 750-page door-stop A Chinese Life by Philippe Ôtié and Li Kunwu all stand out to me.  I’ve heard plans are afoot to bring Li Kunwu to the UK later this year, which will be fascinating. And of course there were Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Eddie Campbell’s The Lovely, Horrible Stuff, and I’m only just discovering Julie Wertz’s work from Koyama Press.

But in the end what floored me, in its level of craft and care, complexity and clarity, was the third and final book of Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know, subtitled ‘Soldier’s Heart’. Her husband Justin Green, creator of Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary, the seminal work of autobiographical comics in 1972, has made a return here to the family here. In their “thorny union”, Green has been an addicted, unfaithful, absentee husband but their daughter’s diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, like Green’s own, brings him back. A mixed-media scrapbook album in landscape format, Tyler’s graphic memoir also focuses a great deal on her “good and decent” father, a veteran bottling up eruptive, post-traumatic memories of his part in World War II. Towards the end, Tyler shows her parents dancing together at a wedding to their favourite song, for the last time, and realises, “Certainly nobody in the crowd understood the significance of this moment or who they were. Some old couple. How could these kids know them? They’ll never know them. Unless I try to explain, which is a good reason to write a book.” And a good reason to read this and indeed the whole trilogy.


 

Best Manga:

Highlights have included the macabre insanity of Attack on Titan, Tezuka’s Barbara, which lots of us fans helped Kick-start, and Shigeru Mizuki’s brilliant conjuring-up of his yokai-filled childhood in NonNonBa. Then I discovered Thermae Romae at the Paris Salon du Livre back in March, where I saw author Mari Yamazaki as a special guest being interviewed before a capacity crowd of her admirers. I picked up the first French volume and lapped up her oddball concept of a failing architect in Ancient Rome who stumbles on a time-tunnel deep in one of his baths, which transports him forward in time to modern Japan. Here he learns secrets of bathing technology and comforts which he brings back to the past, becoming the Roman Empire’s greatest designer of thermal baths. Yamazaki lived in Italy and I love the way she brings in her historical knowledge alongside the sometime broad comedy proceedings of a naked Roman literally out of his depth. And then Yen Press picked this hit title up - it’s become an anime series and a top box-office live-action movie (here’s the trailer!) - and they put two volumes into one classy oversized hardcover. This is why I love manga - you can never predict what sort of crazily inventive plotline someone will come up with next.

Best Funny Comic:

Krent Able’s Book of Mischief blows everything else out of the water when it comes to the sickest celebrity savaging you’ve ever seen, toxic and intoxicating. In contrast, Roger Langridge’s Snarked! is sheer frabjous Carrollian delight. First place though goes to Nicolas Mahler’s Angelman (Fantagraphics, $18.99). I first came across him at the Fumetto Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland in 2010, where Mahler mounted a glorious exhibition, mainly in pink, with fake artifacts, covers, sales charts, and a wacky mobile sculpture of his hero (‘Engelman’ in the original German), which you could animate using a hair-dryer (in matching pink, of course). Here’s a video I made of me having a go with this! 

 


With his deadpan, big-nosed minimalism and sparkling script, Austria’s finest cartoonist skewers the shallowness and exploitation of the American super-hero industry. His utterly unpopular crimefighter Angelman is ‘a totally incoherent, rudderless hero’ garbed in pink all-over spandex and blue feathers and granted the super-powers of ‘sensitivity, open-mindedness and being a good listener’ to battle ‘everyday violence, spitting and personal rudeness’. No matter how lame the concept becomes, the Story Department of Korporate Periodicals will struggle on, trying ‘a total re-launch’ in a vain effort to boost the sales and profits of their franchisable property. It doesn’t endear Angelman to the fans that his secret identity is ‘a female editor of a ladies’ magazine’, Mrs Engelmeier, and that his major opponent is a six-armed fusion of a kraken and a gender reassignment surgeon called the Gender Bender. As a comic book store owner comments, “The questioning of traditional gender identities is not exactly a pressing concern for the average comic book fan (who often has his own ‘identity issues’ to cope with.)”

Aggregating from single page episodes from a variety of perspectives, often with footnotes and continuity references to the lucky thirteen issues of Angelman’s comic book, this first colour graphic novel by Mahler is laugh-out-loud, spot-on satire of how desperately devoid of ideas so much of this genre has sadly become. Later in the book, he is also brilliant at lampooning the superhero movie boom and bust and the hero’s lawsuit against Korporate Publishing for his unfair contract. If you’ve wondered why so much tacky merchandise gets made out of super-heroes, it’s because none of them can read their contracts; one footnote reveals, ‘35% of all super-heroes are illiterate; dyslexia is also widespread among people with super-powers’. Add to this Angelman’s painful one-shot team-up with Lady Dentata and his confidante Captain Unread (who can’t read), and you get an oddly poignant impression of what it must be like to be an unloved, cancelled comic character, all of whose rights are owned by a greedy publishing corporation. Witty translation by Kim Thompson adds considerably to the pleasure of this Funniest Comic of the year.

Best Book About Comics:

Surprisingly, Larry Tye’s biography of Superman turned out to be much more thorough than I’d anticipated, and not a corporate cover-up either, while Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold History dragged most of the skeletons out of the closet in the Haunted House of Ideas. Both books end up having to trawl through exploitative injustices and quagmires of lawsuits. I wonder though, how many ‘True Believer’ fans of these company-owned superhero icons will have any second thoughts about continuing to give so much of their money, loyalty and affection to America’s Big Two brand-managers after reading these exposés? One key biography last year is Wim Hazeu’s biography (not in English, and probably never will be) of the funny-animal genius Marten Toonder - because it finally attempts to correct some of the yarns and spin this Dutch Disney cloaked himself behind. There have been some revealing and ravishing comics history productions again this year, including IDW’s general trade editions of the superb Wally Wood and John Buscema catalogues, originally available only from the exhibitions’ sole venue, a prestige municipal gallery in Palma Mallorca, Spain. Even more spectacular, L’art de la bande dessinée served up a 592-page, full-colour, super-sized smorgasm of the form’s international heritage and dynamism, superbly illustrated in many cases from original artwork. It also marked the arrival of comics in France’s prestige collection ‘L’Art et les Grandes Civilisations’ from Citadelles & Mazenod. It’s a whopper at 25.5 by 32 centimetres and costs a whopping 205 euros - not quite convinced of that price ticket though..

So, that said, I’ve finally chosen Fumetto! 150 Anni di Storie Italiane, edited by Gianni Bono & Matteo Stefanelli (Rizzoli, 60 euros) as my book about comics of the year (and yes it’s in Italian). It’s still a weighty slab of a thing, clocking in at 520 pages but for a more affordable 60 euros and slightly taller in page measurements too. And it’s concentration on Italian comics allows the editors and the authorial team to go into depth, detail and variety. Bono & Stefanelli organise their chronology by eras from 1848 to 2012 and follow each section’s introductory essay with double-page profiles of key writers and artists (114 in all), each given one whole page graphic and one page of biography and appreciation including a boxed focus on one of their principal characters. These are followed by glorious galleries of significant periodicals and books of the period. Not everybody will appreciate one quirky design feature, whereby comics pages or covers generally bleed off the pages’ edges, often cropping off text and picture, which can frustrate attempts to read these samples completely. Unusually, the pictures are mostly captioned in white lettering in single lines on thin black strips, sometimes running vertically as a border. But the range and thoroughness of coverage here is riveting. The opening 1848-98 chapter is a fascinating look at the multiple births of comics in Italy, taking them back earlier than their previous official ‘centenary’ of 1908. Ending with Igort is really apt, as his most recent docu-comics works about Ukraine and Russia are some of the most important graphic novels from the past few years - Simon & Shuster and Jonathan Cape are translating these into English but not till 2014.

I’ve had a bit of a passion for Italy’s comics for quite a while now, and they still turn up surprises which I am keen to try more of. To give just two examples I am taken with on the evidence here, Panterino resembles a sort of Korky the Cat as an action hero, teamed with his crocodile pal Coccodrilletto, while Gey Carioca, later re-named Tita Dinamita, looks like a classy piece of post-War, Caniff-style erotic comedy. This would be enough of an achievement, but Bono & Stefanelli supplement this with ‘Approfondimenti’, going into more depth with a 100-page section offering perspectives on how Italian comics relate to Italian culture, media, visual arts, cinema, TV, literature, toys and merchandise, and how they are being archived and their local histories in different major cities. In addition, they highlight a further ten major publishers and innovators, like Luciano Pedrocchi, inventor of Italy’s widely exported photocomics or ‘fotoromanzo’, or what people outside Italy often call fumetti. Extra essays consider the worldwide impact of fumetti, from Argentina to France and Britain (Alberto Beccatini surveys the artists and agents who filled hundreds of pages of British comics, often uncredited) and a final overview of Italy’s considerable home-grown Disney comics. This stands as the crowning achievement by a ‘Century of Italian Comics National Committee’, whose list of supporters and institutions is impressive in itself. It proves conclusively how fertile fumetti have been over a century and a half and is a model for the ideal form of national comics history that ought to exist in every appropriate country. Bravissimo!

Best Comic Books:

I’ll admit it, I try to keep an eye out and keep aware of the good stuff (of which there’s quite a lot, especially this past year from a re-charged Image Comics). I’m a bit remote from the weekly Wednesday fix of never-ending stapled American comic book serials and so tend to ‘wait for the trade’ softcover collection, which sometimes works out cheaper too. I’m also difficult to hook onto yet another ongoing serial of unspecified length anymore with no end in sight (but Powers still does it for me actually, and Saga and Prophet are tempting me). I know I need to get a handle on certain completed (or soon-to-be) sagas with lots of buzz about them, like Sweet Tooth and Locke & Key. But for Best Comic Books, I’m plumping for a Best Three of single/double issues: Pope Hats 3 by Canada’s Ethan Rilly from AdHouse, a real charmer and a revelation about working in a cut-throat law firm; another Canuck, Michael Deforges, distills unease and quease into the fashion-centric Lose #4 from Koyama; and in top position, IDW’s two-issue compilation of Al Ewing and Brendan McCarthy’s delirious, day-glo hallucinations, first printed in 2000AD, The Zaucer of Zilk. Their fancy-pants word-play and world-play sizzle thrillingly here (“swaggering prannet” anyone?!), and the comic-book version is even better with its taller pages allowing extended room for additional bleed imagery above and below as well as behind the panels. As brightly coloured as Spangles and as tempting as a sweet shop, the ideal antidote to an English S.A.D. mid-winter. “Let the phantasmagoria commence!” And yes there’s a trade coming of it.


Best Anthologies:
OK, so many to choose from -  (Thickness 3, Solipsistic Pop 4, the amazing value and variety of The Comix Reader newspaper, only £1), but I’m going to pick out two: from the USA, Secret Prison # 7, their tribute to the influential and avant-garde manga magazine which I covered in my Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics book, is also a really nice object, squarebound on 172 oversize pages of B&W newsprint for $15 with Brits Luke Pearson and Harvey James, plus Angie Wang and Tom Hart in the mix, and some contextual articles.

And in the UK, I want to give glowing credit to artist-editor-publisher David O’Connell who just keeps on unearthing exciting fresh talents for his lovingly crafted and compact Ink+Paper - Euan Cook (below), Dan Haycocks and Nulsh stood out for me in his third issue. It comes A5 digest size, 100 pages plus covers, mostly comics plus some comics-related features, for £8 (like a digitally printed reincarnation of the A5 Escape Magazine Peter Stanbury and I co-published in the Eighties, in a way). Crucial here is the space O’Connell allows his contributors to tell their tales, rather than confining them to a maximum of only two (admittedly larger) pages as in the also-excellent Nobrow. It is positive that Nobrow have launched their 52-page 17x23 Showcase last year offering longer stories. As a footnote, Britain also acquired a free ‘street press’ comics anthology last year, Bristol-based Off Life and its end-of-year second issue is rather fine, full colour on smooth white paper, with a very good 4-pager by Neill Cameron. Pick it up in one of their Bristol or London stockists near you or read it online.
 


Best Strip Reprint Compilations:
Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo comes close but it has to be Otto Soglow’s The Little King in the USA from IDW, glorious and humorous and largely visual. I’d not realised just how long Soglow kept this quality up. Timeless.

As for Britain, Strange Attractor Press have done Savage Pencil proud in their gatherum of his crisp, caricatural, cauterising comix for The Wire monthly music magazine. Trip or Squeak’s Big Amplifier is introduced by pal Gary Panter and occasionally annotated by Sav X, who also provides a 4-page discography. Evolving his characters from the classic Daily Mirror strip Pip, Squeak & Wilfred, Mr Pencil presents Squeak, a penguin with attitude, jazz-fan Bebop Bunny, beatnik Wülf, loopy satires like the Acker Bulk Appreciation Society assassinating a piggy Ronnie Trots, and a host of real-life ‘avant-rock luminaries’ who you just couldn’t make up. If like me you don’t recognise all these musicians he covers, this book also serves as a fun way to expand your knowledge. And be sure to check out the accompanying exhibition at Orbital Comics Gallery. Read the noise!

And as for the best from France, I’m going to be rather patriotic and choose Mimodrames, their technical term for mimed dramas or silent comedies, in this case by the British master of speechless comics, H.M. Bateman (1887-1970), honoured last year with an exhibition at The Cartoon Museum in London. Well done to publisher-editor-historian Thierry Groensteen for corralling this first ever collection of 120 pages of his strips, many from Punch magazine. It comes with an introduction by Bateman biographer Anthony Anderson. Here’s an example from 1916, the height of World War I, which you could publish today.



And in an attempt to wrap up, let me drop in a few more ‘Bests’ of 2012:

Best Horror Comic: Adamtine by Hannah Berry - read my comments about it here! (With Charles Burns’ The Hive as runner-up!)

Best UK Debut Graphic Novel: The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman - read my comments about it here!

Best North American Debut Graphic Novel: Heartlessby Nina Bunjevac - read my comments about it here!

Best French-Language Debut Graphic Novel: En Silence by Audrey Spirry - read my comments about it here!

Best Adaptation of a Classic: Adi Parva; Churning of the Ocean by Amruta Patil - read my comments about it here! (With Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson’s Dante’s Inferno and Rob Davis’s Don Quixote as joint runners-up!)

Best Old-Testament Biblical Humour Graphic Novel: Goliath by Tom Gauld - read my comments about it here!

And, of course, ‘Number One in a Field of One’ :
Best Graphic Novel in 14 Assorted Parts That Come Inside A Big Boardgame Box: Building Stories by Chris Ware - read my comments about it here!

Finally, to blow my own trumpet:
Best Graphic Novel co-published by ... me!:
The Great Unwashed by Warren and Gary Pleece, the first title in a select new line from Escape Books. Yes, we’re back and the website IS coming. Thanks to Jared at OK Comics in Leeds for choosing it as his second best graphic novel of 2012! Read my interview with Warren Pleece here and listen to Los Bros Pleece talk with Alex Fitch here!


It’s been a good year, a very good year. As usual, I’m asking some of my international correspondents and 1001 Comics contributors to choose their Best of 2012 from their respective countries, so look out for their International Perspective. And I invite you to join me now in 2013 and let’s discover where comics take us to next!

Posted: January 13, 2013

This is a revised and expanded version of a Book Review published in The Times Literary Supplement, January 18th 2013.

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Al Ewing
Brendan McCarthy
Carol Tyler
Glyn Dillon
H.M. Bateman
Joff Winterhart
Judith Vanistendael
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Nicolas Mahler
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When David Lost His Voice
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