It was the best of times, it was the…no, it was nowhere near the best of times, as the politically and socially turbulent pages of Alison Bechdel’s Essential Dykes to Watch Out For attest. It was a fine year for comics, however, with brilliantly deranged past masters inspiring weird and crafty younger artists. Here, in alphabetic order, is the comics A-list that bent my head this annus horribilis.
“The Acme Novelty Library 19” by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)
Chris Ware mimics the mediocre exquisitely in the latest installment of his ongoing Rusty Brown saga. The book opens with “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” a no-brow science-fiction story that turns out to be hapless Rusty’s artistic response to a sexually traumatic affair and subsequent disappointing marriage. Bleak, yet brilliant.
Berlin: City of Smoke Book Two, by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
In the finest historical comic around, Jason Lutes documents the Weimar era’s decline while getting deeply inside the heads of Communists, National Socialists, Jews, and gentiles alike during the late-1920s ramp-up to World War II.
Bottomless Belly Button, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics)
A formalist family epic spread over 720 pages, BBB describes a week in the life of the Loony Family from the perspective of their frogheaded adolescent son, Peter. Shaw’s novel is a textbook example of how complex emotions can be rendered with graphic elegance.
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
The first autobiographical comic about an autobiographical comic, Art Spiegelman’s expanded edition of his 1972 breakthrough collection, Breakdowns, opens with a dazzling new 20-page introduction that meditates masterfully on a life lived through comics.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
This collection contains some 400 pages’ worth of the bi-weekly comic strip about lesbians – and the lesbians who love them – Bechdel has been drawing since 1987. The book’s final strip also marks the unresolved conclusion to the only comic that outdoes Gary Trudeau on the political funny pages.
Gary Panter (PictureBox)
I’d be raving about this cornucopic two-volume box set dedicated to the influential post-pop artist’s prolific multimediated career even if I hadn’t contributed an essay about Panter’s often hilarious, often horrifying comics universe.
The Goddess of War, by Lauren R. Weinstein (PictureBox)
The first oversized issue of Weinstein’s promising new series introduces a world that combines elements of Jack Kirby’s Thor, a Wagnerian space opera, and scenes out of classic Westerns.
Herbie Archives Volume 1 (Dark Horse)
Written by the pseudonymous Shane O’Shea and drawn by the enigmatic Ogden Whitney, lollipop-powered Herbie Popnecker, AKA the Fat Fury, embodied an absurdist alternative to mainstream superhero fare from 1958 to 1967. Comicdom’s most formidable fat fuck destroys all monsters and romances first ladies in Dark Horse’s righteously remastered reprints.
Joker, by Brian Azzarello (DC)
Everything ha-ha funny about the Joker is eliminated in Brian Azzarello’s seriously disturbing story told from the POV of one of the costumed villain’s henchmen. Inspired by Heath Ledger’s onscreen characterization or not, this Joker’s smile has teeth.
Sita Sings the Blues, a film by Nina Paley
Hindu gods sang, danced, and cavorted merrily in the most visually intoxicating animated musical to first screen this year. Cartoonist-animator Paley mixes the giddy jazz rhythms of Betty Boop-era Fleischer Studios, Terry Gilliam’s Python collage, Hindu religious epics, traditional Indian art, autobiographical cartooning, and contemporary boutique advertising design into her frolicking reinterpretation of the Ramayana.
Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes, edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray (Fantagraphics)
Rory Hayes, who was born in 1949 and died of a drug overdose in 1983, is the great tragic figure of the San Francisco underground-comix scene. This anthology collects the macabre artist’s pharmacologically inspired and psychologically overdriven forays into pornography, horror, and a personal mythology inspired by a childhood Teddy bear.
You Are Forgiven, by Matt Leines (Free News Projects)
Not so much comics as beautifully drawn and colored portraits of archaic and mythological characters that appear to deserve full-blown books of their own. Each page resembles a panel from some lost sequential masterpiece.
On another day, in another mood, many of these runner-ups could easily have made my A-list: Che: A Graphic Biography, by Spain Rodriguez (Verso); “Batman R.I.P.,” by Grant Morrison (DC); What It Is, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly); I Live Here, by Mia Kirshner and others (Pantheon), Kramers Ergot 7 (Buenaventura); Capacity, by Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres); Travel, by Yuichi Yokoyama (PictureBox); Petey & Pussy, by John Kerschbaum (Fantagraphics); and “Achewood,” by Chris Onstad.