Words and pictures have been eternally entwined: The ancient Egyptians combined hieroglyphs and portraits in The Book of the Dead; Japanese scholars mixed haikus with nature scenes in elegant tomes of woodblock prints; Gustav Doré’s 19th-century illuminations of iconic literature from the Bible to Don Quixote are perennially in print. The illustrated book remains one of life’s most visceral pleasures, and 2008 offered a cornucopia rich with words and images.
Venerable art-book publisher Abrams has given Jack Kirby (1917-94) the full-dress treatment in Kirby: King of Comics (224 pp., $40). Through reproductions of penciled roughs and colorful covers of titles from Young Love to the Fantastic Four, author Mark Evanier demonstrates how Kirby’s graphic innovations moved the art form past the repetitive pacing of newspaper strips and into the dynamism of self-contained comic-book stories.
Decades later, the costumed vigilantes and cold-war gods of Watchmen (1986) upended the superheroic visions of pioneers like Kirby. In Watching the Watchmen (Titan Books, 272 pp., $39.95), artist Dave Gibbons turns author to explicate the classic nine-panel grid he employed for Alan Moore’s multivalent script, juxtaposing his original chiaroscuro thumbnail sketches with his final, visually interlocked pages. An essay by colorist John Higgins on the series’ moodily sophisticated palette provides further insight into arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time.
Dan Walsh created the Internet sensation Garfield Minus Garfield (Ballantine, 128 pp., $12) by simply erasing the mega-star cat (and his cynical thought balloons) from daily strips. This collection captures the now-catless loser, Jon Arbuckle, declaiming to four-color voids with absurd pathos—”No hug?”—or pathetic enthusiasm—”I’m going on an imaginary date tonight!” Theo Ellsworth treads the opposite path with the horror vacui panels of Capacity (Secret Acres, 336 pp., $15), taking the reader on a surreal journey through exquisitely cross-hatched forests, cities, and caverns, where the beasts populating dreams become skittish at the scent of the dreamers. Rory Hayes (1949-83) delved even more deeply into the id, and never returned: Where Demented Wented (Fantagraphics, 144 pp., $22.99) surveys this underground primitive’s drug-fueled ink hallucinations of menaced teddy bears, slavering ghouls, and sexual cannibalism, which R. Crumb championed as “completely, perfectly blunt.”
Paul Pope displays a more graceful style in a lavish compilation of his ’90s series Heavy Liquid (Vertigo, 256 pp., $39.99). Set in a dystopic near-future, this graphic novel launches its stylish East Village hero on an international quest for a mysterious substance that morphs from visionary drug to deadly explosive to sensuous art material. But if busty cheerleaders stripping for an “Acid Orgy” or blonde ingénues menaced by opium lords are more your poison, the vibrant paperback covers that Stephen J. Gertz has reproduced in Dope Menace (Feral House, 220 pp., $24.95) should turn the trick. And possibly even trippier are the 1960s Japanese Batman comics collected by Chip Kidd in Bat-Manga! (Pantheon, 352 pp., $29.95). Photographer Geoff Spear has lovingly captured every detail of pages that were poorly printed in purple ink and have long since yellowed and decayed, lending the whirling geometries of manga master Jiro Kuwata’s ersatz Dynamic Duo a bathetic beauty.
Barry Feinstein and Bob Dylan collaborated on a very different ’60s treasure: Published this year for the first time, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric (Simon and Schuster, 142 pp., $30) chronicles the decay of Tinseltown’s studio system through Feinstein’s black-and-white photos and Dylan’s poetry. Included are shots of Marilyn Monroe’s prescription pills, a wax effigy of Clark Gable, and a spread of the tumbled-down “Hollywood” sign next to the verse “off again/away away/go right thru it/make room for the others/comin to it.”
Then we have the sad and convoluted tale of Dwaine Tinsley, creator of Hustler magazine’s Chester the Molester. Did art imitate life when the cartoonist’s daughter accused him of sexual abuse, or was it all part of ’80s “recovered memory” hysteria? Lawyer and comics aficionado Bob Levin lays down a brief in Most Outrageous (Fantagraphics, 204 pp., $19.99), which leaves the reader reeling as the criminal-justice system struggles with crimes against trust and truth.
Weltschmerz runs freely through Jason Lutes’s Berlin: City of Smoke (Drawn and Quarterly, 216 pp., $19.95), as Communists and National Socialists slug it out on the streets and the demimonde parties hard in Weimar Berlin. We know history will send the city to hell, but Lutes’s second of three planned graphic novels gives us characters to care about presented in panels drawn with Bauhaus clarity. In Nat Turner (Abrams, 208 pp., $12.95), Kyle Baker focuses on a slice of history closer to home: the bloody rebellion led by the Virginia slave in 1831. Not since the heyday of Mad magazine’s Jack Davis has a comic artist exaggerated the human figure with such beautiful brinksmanship. Baker’s propulsive storytelling leads this recounting of the brutal uprising into a state of visual grace.
I Live Here (Pantheon, 320 pp., $29.95) details war in Chechnya, government oppression in Burma, disappearances in Juárez, and Malawi’s AIDS crisis. This elaborately designed anthology is pegged to the journals of actor Mia Kirshner, who traveled around the globe to chronicle the abused and displaced; she then joined with numerous writers, painters, designers, cartoonists, and some of the victims themselves to create this poignant compendium. In A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $30), artist Mike Konopacki has adapted a chapter from Howard Zinn’s populist blockbuster into comics, intercut with documentary photos. Starting with Zinn’s reasoned prologue about our current wars—”We are committing terrorism in order to ‘send a message’ to terrorists”—the book traces the bloody arc of empire through massacres, labor strife, and numerous hot and cold wars, before concluding with an epilogue entitled “The Possibility of Hope.”
And just in time for Christmas comes a collected volume of Get Your War On (Soft Skull, 256 pp., $15.95), David Rees’s potty-mouthed clip-art comic, which simultaneously nails the nation’s anger at its nihilistic enemies and its frustration with incompetent leadership. A December 12, 2001, panel reads: “Will you fucking hurry up and kill Osama bin Laden for fuck’s sake? Jesus Fucking Christ, how can I put this—YOU’VE BEEN BOMBING FOR TWO FUCKING MONTHS! WHAT THE FUCK SIZE BOMBS DO YOU NEED?”
Completely, perfectly blunt, indeed.