Comics. They began more than a century ago as a circulation booster during Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspaper wars. But with an ever-refreshing youth demographic, they remain eternally hip and popular. How best to sort through 2007’s many offerings?
Start with Douglas Wolk’s deeply engaging historical survey Reading Comics (Da Capo, 405 pp., $22.95)—his warts-‘n’-all analysis of Will Eisner is alone worth the price of admission. (One of the giants of the medium, Eisner couldn’t completely escape the racism of mid-century America in his otherwise wonderful seven-page Spirit melodramas.) Wolk’s two dozen chapters also include an exegesis on Chester Brown’s primitively drawn tales of a deranged clown, a philosophical journey into Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula, and a pert dissection of the 1,600 pages that compose Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical paean to psychic liberation, The Invisibles. Additionally, Wolk offers help to readers (like me) who adored the Hernandez Brothers’ artwork in their Love and Rockets comic books, but were flummoxed by their unfettered narrative jump-cutting. Wolk’s analysis proves a handy companion to Fantagraphics’ chunky 25th-anniversary collections of Gilbert Hernandez’s magic-realist Palomar stories (three volumes each of 288 pp., $14.95) and bro Jaime’s Locas tales (three 288-page volumes each, $16.95). The decades-long story arcs follow the loves and betrayals of Gilbert’s earthy characters in Central America and Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey, hot punk chicks who love each other while aging realistically (though not exactly growing up).
Jaime is a flat-out great figurative artist, and it’s insightful to learn from Todd Hignite’s gorgeously illustrated In the Studio (Yale, 320 pp., $19.95) that one big influence on his noirish eye candy was Bob Bolling’s early ’60s Little Archie. We also discover that Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes is obsessed with the biomorphic blobs Alvin Lustig painted for old paperback covers, and that Charles Burns’s teen-plague victims are derived from ’50s romance comics. Additionally, Art Spiegelman tells Hignite of his “Oh, my God!” moment on first seeing Fletcher Hanks’s 1940 Stardust comic books, now collected in I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets (Fantagraphics, 120 pp., $19.95); no less an authority than R. Crumb notes that “Fletcher Hanks was a twisted dude.” The grotesque physiognomies of Hanks’s criminal masterminds (all bent on apocalyptic destruction) and the overamped colors are as trippy as anything that appeared in ’70s underground comix. Stardust, a Superman knockoff, quickly foils the crooks and spends the remaining pages devising baroque punishments: A gangster seeking to murder government leaders is devoured by the “Headless Headhunter . . . the hugest giant in the universe.”
The writing is as bad as that because early comics grew from the loam of pulp novels, which were too often cranked out with penny-a-word paychecks rather than logical plot points in mind. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Vintage, 1,168 pp., $25), edited by Otto Penzler, chalks up serious body counts in hard-boiled yarns from Chandler, Hammett, and dozens of lesser lights, and includes Adolphe Barreaux’s wonderfully sleazy 1930s strip Sally the Sleuth, originally published in Spicy Detective magazine. Suffice it to say, Sally routinely investigates gangsters who can’t resist binding her and/or ripping off her clothes.
Comics are more literate nowadays, but thankfully retain some of Stardust‘s strangeness. Chris Ware edited Best American Comics 2007 (Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp., $22), which swings from Ben Katchor’s beguiling tale of shoehorn worshippers to Alison Bechdel’s stirring coming-of-age story about the death of her “manic-depressive, closeted fag” father, to a Peter Max’d–out take on Seinfeld-as-acid-flashback by the art collective Paper Rad. But if you really want weird, Osamu Tezuka’s 1976 MW has been beautifully repackaged by Vertical (584 pp., $24.95). The manga master, who gave the world Astro Boy, offers a lad who is kidnapped and then survives the leak of an American chemical-warfare agent on a remote Japanese island, only to grow into a polymorphously perverse serial killer whose fawn-like eyes seduce a politician’s daughter and Catholic priest alike.
Aaron Alexovich applies a manga gloss to Kimmie66 (Minx, 176 pp., $9.99), plopping teenage girls into a futuristic goth matrix, where avatars avoid meeting their BFFs in the flesh. It’s Neuromancer for the Hello Kitty crowd. Ripped from tomorrow’s Web headlines is Anthony Lappé’s and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War (Grand Central, 192 pp., $21.99). While making a video for his anticorporate blog, rugged Jimmy Burns serendipitously films a terrorist bombing at a Brooklyn Starbucks. Hired by a sensationalistic cable-news network—”The terrorists don’t sleep and neither do we”—he lands in Iraq, where President McCain is continuing the troop surge. Burns unwittingly publicizes a revenge beheading; befriends a sage, flak-jacketed Dan Rather; and dallies with online groupies. Goldman’s desert-landscape screen-grabs and kinetic graphics rush to keep pace with Lappé’s balls-out script.
Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds (D&Q, 168 pp., $19.95) is a quieter take on Middle East carnage. A ne’er-do-well father may or may not have died in a suicide bombing; his younger girlfriend and his son traverse Israel seeking clues, fall in love, and find that the missing old man looms between them. Deft artwork and the theme of loss partially regained make this one of the most poignant books of the year. Maira Kalman, however, provides stiff competition. Part memoir, part travelogue, The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin, 336 pp., $29.95) is loaded with vibrant gouache paintings—portraits, interiors, historical events—captioned with wry ruminations on life and the philosophers who have tried to make sense of it.
But hey, comics were born in newspapers, and All the Rage (Three Rivers Press, 280 pp., $16.95) showcases one of its sharpest practitioners. Before morphing into an Adult Swim cartoon, Aaron McGruder’s daily Boondocks strip happily rode America’s third rail of race, getting censored and banned along the way. There’s no denying the bite in a Sunday strip featuring a perky blond dude in shorts and T-shirt jogging through the snow past a bundled-up black kid, who mutters to his buddy, “White people.” What’s even funnier is McGruder’s annotation: “OK, if you’re mad at this you’re just a hater.”
Seemingly gentler, but pungent in their own right, are Tove Jansson’s 1950s Moomin strips, gathered into a beautiful, oversize volume (D&Q, 96 pp., $19.95). The happy family of hippo-like Moomins outwits self-absorbed jocks and uptight neighbors with aplomb; what gives the strip edge are its insouciant figures, expressive areas of rich black, and judicious sweeps of Zip-a-tone. Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny(Top Shelf, 104 pp., $10) also artfully deploys black and white, in a wordless parable about a fox who, unable to hate his age-old prey, tearfully embraces his inner bunny.
Although there are only the occasional funny animals inside the lavish, two- volume Completely Mad Don Martin (Running Press, 1,200 pp., $150), Martin’s famously pliable people satisfied our basest instincts during his tenure at Mad magazine from 1956 to ’88. Accidental amputations and knockout B.O. were reliable visual punch lines; as early as 1957, a two-page gag featured a teenage boy, an inflatable woman, and a men’s bathroom. Who says our culture is more debased now than back in the good ol’ days?
Alright, so a case can be made that The Perry Bible Fellowship (Dark Horse, 96 pp., $14.95) is some seriously sick shit. Redlining the eclectic meter with drawing styles that include Flash Player bold, Edward Gorey quaint, and treacle pastel, Nicholas Gurewitch’s weekly strips fascinatingly manipulate time. Two rabbits are trapped in a pit—in the second panel, one says, “With love, anything is possible”; in the third, they climb out atop a writhing heap of their children. Or a man loudly proclaims his desire to a woman as they sit beneath an overhanging precipice of snow—the final panel reveals flattened skeletons on verdant spring grass. Gurewitch’s art wonderfully implies that entire novels lurk in the void between panels.
Economy of form in service to sweeping imagination—the best comics have always let you do your own thinking.