Sunday, May 9, 2010

And the Rest...

Following up on my “Best of the Noughts” list, here’s a list of comics that I thought were noteworthy, but didn’t make the big list for one reason or another. Often, that reason was that I didn’t get around to reading them in time, but there were also a few books that I thought deserved a mention even though I don’t particularly enjoy them myself. And then, of course, there’s the critically-lauded stuff that I absolutely hate, which is where I’ll start. First up are those goddamn art comics motherfuckers Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes…


Ware's series Acme Novelty Library is certainly a triumph of design. Every issue is in a different format (regular comics pamphlet, tabloid, hardcover book with dust jacket, etc), and every one of them is a thing of beauty. Whenever a new one comes out, I pick it up in the store and look at it. And I'm always impressed. But then I put it back and buy something else instead. Why? Because Ware's design talents aren't enough to overcome the crushing nihilism of his writing. This is a humor comic, but its humor is based pretty much entirely on how pathetic Ware's protagonists are, and the emotional pain they suffer because of it. It's very good stuff if that sort of thing appeals to you, but I'm not a fan, and so it didn't make the list. Even I will admit to Ware's genius, though, and will say that his work is at least worth a look.

Dan Clowes' Eightball is another matter entirely. I don't think I've ever read another comic that made me dislike its creator quite so violently. Clowes is a talented cartoonist, and he's a smart guy, too. But he shares Ware's utter nihilism, and pairs it with a mean streak a mile wide. While Ware's presentation remains cold and distant, Clowes seems to revel in his characters' agonies, often taking on a superior attitude that makes me dislike him much more than his creations, no matter how petty or despicable they may be. So no cookie for him! At all. Don't read him.

Okay, actually, to be fair, his first major work, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, is a nicely-realized little David-Lynch-style mystery story, and is well-worth reading. Ghost World is good, too. But both of those books were done in the 90s, and he produced nothing I liked at all in the Noughts. Negative fuck.

This is not to sound like a pollyanna, mind you. I'm all for exploring the darker side of human nature. But I find utter nihilism just as tedious and dull as I do complete sunshine-bright optimism, and every bit as idiotic. Life's too short, and too painful, to dwell on either. And as long as I'm on this little tear about nihilistic art comics I don't enjoy, I might as well discuss…

Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve: Once a well-realized series of brittle character studies, this series slowly began to take on a depressive tone through the Noughts, and eventually mired down into tedium. By the back half of the decade, Brian Wood was doing the same thing better in books like Demo and Local, and I stopped following Tomine completely.

100 Bullets: I should really like this comic. It's a crime book with an intriguing premise: a mystery man finds people who've had trouble in their lives and gives them an untraceable gun and a briefcase with 100 bullets in it to solve their problems. That's the stuff pulp fiction legends are made of. I love that idea, but I don't really like the series. I gave it more than a fair chance, I think. I've read at least three of the first four story arcs (maybe all four), and only found one of them interesting. The rest felt like retreads to me, stories I've seen done better elsewhere, with the briefcase full of bullets just grafted onto them. Even their noir homage/send-up, "The Counterfifth Detective," wound up annoying me. I'm not sure if it's a bad pastiche of pulp detective writing or a shallow parody of it, but either way I didn't like it. I've read a few issues here and there later in the run that delve into the backstory of the mystery man, Agent Graves, and found all that stuff really gripping. But the crime stories that are the series' meat and potatoes leave me cold.

Y the Last Man: This book (about what happens to the world when all the men are killed off in a man-plague) gets very nice reviews, and I admittedly haven’t read past the first trade, so maybe I’m missing something, but… It just never clicked for me. Granted, I wasn’t expecting it to be a social satire when I went in, and that threw me. But I dunno. Yorick (our hero) annoys the piss out of me, as does his monkey, and the super-model mercenary character tasked with keeping him alive. I don’t hate the book or anything, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t like it very much.

Scalped: I don’t dislike this one at all. It's a fun and nasty little crime book set on an Indian reservation. I'm sorta kinda following it in trades, but only sorta kinda. It's something I'll read when I get around to it. Not something I really felt like putting on my Top 100 list.

Walking Dead: Another one that falls into the “good-but-not-good-enough-for-me-to-pay-for” category. I’m not a huge fan of the zombie apocalypse genre in general, so that doesn’t help. But my main problem with it (and my problem with a lot of otherwise-fine comics in general) is that the writing is a bit too straightforward for my taste. I like to work a little bit as a reader. I like figuring some plot points out for myself, and I like to figure out character motivations from context, and those aren’t things Robert Kirkman does as a writer. So while this is fine zombie apocalypse work… It’s just not for me.

Jonah Hex: Like Walking Dead, this is a perfectly fine comic in a genre I don’t hold any particular love for, written in a manner that doesn’t capture my imagination. If you like westerns, though, you could do a lot worse than this.

Louis Riel: Chester Brown’s historical fiction series about one of Canada’s founding fathers. I liked what I read of this, but I wandered off from the serialized comic, intending to come back and read the eventual book collection, something I just haven’t gotten around to yet.

Persepolis: Marjane Satrapi’s story of growing up in Iran. Fascinating and (from what I’ve read of it) very well-done. I own a copy of the book, but like Louis Riel, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

A Drifting Life: Supposedly a manga masterpiece, but it got bought out from under me at the funnybook store when it came out, and I haven’t gotten around to picking up a copy yet.

Joe Sacco: Not a book, but a cartoonist. Sacco does comics journalism, and I have a great deal of respect for what what work of his I’ve read. He spent a great deal of time in war zones over the past decade, and has written some gripping accounts of the conflicts he’s found there. I just haven’t read enough of his work to have included him on the list. I spent a lot of time in the Noughts retreating into comfortable genres and familiar creators, and Sacco was a casualty of that.

Jim Woodring: Another creator, rather than a comic. Woodring’s Frank work is among the strangest and most compelling stuff being done in comics, and he didn’t make it onto the list primarily because I forgot about him. Of course, I forgot about him because he hasn’t really done much in the last ten years. But what little there was, was brilliant, disturbing, and surreal.

Joe Casey: Another creator, a writer this time, and one who generally works in genres I like. Casey is a powerful comics imagination, and in the late 90s I loved his work with Ladronn on Marvel’s Cable series. This decade, he’s done a lot more creator-owned stuff, and all of it is worth a look. I’d recommend Wildcats 3.0 (Jim Lee’s Image super-team written as corporate entity), the Intimates, and especially his Kirby homage, Godland. It’s some of the best straightforward super hero writing out there, and I often wish I liked straightforward super hero writing enough to read it.

Flight: A fine themed anthology series about flying. Lots of talented creators from around the globe have contributed stories, resulting in something that’s like Heavy Metal, but not so stupid. It didn’t make the list because, for whatever reason, it just didn’t grab me like it perhaps should have. But it’s well-done, and worthy of a look.

Kramers Ergot: A frankly mind-blowing anthology of new underground “comix“ material, put out by above-ground book publisher Buenaventura Press. Hailed as the natural successor to RAW, it’s an impressive series. I’ve personally never liked the undergrounds and their modern counterparts enough to really get into it, and definitely not enough to pay the $125 price tag for Kramers Ergot 7, a massive tome the size of an illuminated medieval grimoire. But if that sort of thing is your cup of tea, then this is the book to read.

Blankets: Craig Thompson’s coming-of-age novel is lauded as one of the finest autobio comics ever written, and I feel somewhat embarrassed at not having read it. My distaste for autobio comics (fostered by the ten million dreadful autobio comics shat out by Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly in the 90s) kept me away from it, but having now seen some of Thompson’s impressive cartoon stylings, I’m gonna have to get over that.

Powr Mastrs: A fantasy series by an artist working under the pen name C.F., Powr Mastrs is about a set of warrior tribes and the way power balances between them. It feels weird to use a term like “lush primitivism” to describe the art, but that’s pretty accurate, I think. CF’s linework is very simple, but he uses it to draw intricate landscapes for his characters to interact with. I’ve only read an excerpt, and I don’t think it’s really my sort of thing, but it is a pretty stunning piece of work.

Essex County: Having recently become a fan of Jeff Lemire’s post-apocalypse series Sweet Tooth, I picked up the book that made his name, the Essex County Trilogy, only recently. A meditation on family and small-town life in the Mid-West, Essex County is all about subtle character writing, and Lemire’s rough-edged cartooning. It’s good work, and I wish I’d read it before putting the list together, because it certainly would have earned a spot.

Winter Men: A series set in modern Russia about a cop at the heart of a program to create super powers. I read the first issue when it came out in 2005, and put it aside. But some of the rave reviews I’ve seen for it since make me include it here. It’s lauded as one of the more accurate fictional looks at post-Soviet Russia anyone’s seen, and for that alone I may have to pick up the trade collection.

Omega the Unknown: Jonathan Lethem and Faryl Dalrymple’s 2007 revamp of the 1970s Steve Gerber head-trip super hero comic. I read the early issues of this, and decided to trade-wait for the rest, figuring that it would read better in one sitting. I finally got around to buying the trade last summer, and it’s still sitting there waiting for me to read it. What I remember of it is strange and paranoid, like a Philip K Dick story in comics form. Very much recommended, and something that would have made the list if I’d read it in time.

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