Arguing over who rates as the greatest painter of all time is a mug’s game, with candidates scattered across millennia and continents. Comic-book artists, however, have been around less than a century, and while there are certainly European and Japanese worthies, most of the standouts, like baseball greats, work in the U.S. of A. So in the leadoff spot of our 2011 roundup of impressive comics and graphic novels, we offer a contender for the number one slot followed by an eclectically talented top 10.
As authors Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell illustrate in the aptly titled Genius, Isolated (IDW, 328 pp., $49.99, first of three volumes), Alex Toth (1928–2006) was a natural. At age 22, he elevated a hokey French Foreign Legion yarn through seemingly effortless POV shifts and dead-on foreshortening, the entire story smartly reproduced here through a mix of original boards and coarsely printed color pages. Toth’s deft compositional sense reduced the shape of a flag in one panel to an abstract mirror of a fort in the next, which he followed with spare flicks of ink to nimbly describe a horse galloping across a vast desert. An insightful designer, Toth often positioned mundane objects—a lamp, a globe—in the foreground, lending a voyeuristic feel to virtuoso figures set in cannily textured interiors. Although his personal life was fraught, Toth transcended even the corniest romance or horror potboilers through some of the most empathetically rendered human beings ever to see print.
During World War II, another comics master, Milton Caniff (1907–88), retooled his extremely influential newspaper strip, “Terry and the Pirates,” into a weekly dose of risque eye candy for the boys in uniform. Male Call (Hermes, 156 pp., $39.99) collects the adventures of Miss Lace, a curvaceous brunette in elbow-length gloves whose “topographic features” were, Caniff noted, “as racy as current Supreme Court rulings would allow.” The cartoonist’s signature balance of black-and-white shapes and witty scripts were well suited to the delectable cheesecake he supplied, gratis, to the war effort.
The artists and writers gathered in Government Issue (Abrams ComicArts, 304 pp., $29.95) answered our nation’s call with substantially less titillation, cranking out instructional comic books—tips on surviving nuclear blasts or avoiding bicycle crashes, for example—at the behest of federal and local governments. Author Richard L. Graham relates how Charles Schulz loaned Charlie Brown to a 1968 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare pamphlet explaining the treatment of lazy eye, leading to Sally’s eye patch (and inevitable pirate jokes) in daily “Peanuts” strips. Skilled, though anonymous, artists warned teens about the shame of syphilis in 1957 and the dangers of heroin a decade later, while more recently, the combat stresses associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom were addressed in a graphic novel published by the Navy.
In one of several surreal tales collected in I Will Bite You! (Secret Acres, 128 pp., $14), artist and writer Joseph Lambert pays homage to the dance scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas with a joyful spectrum of creatures boogalooing to a stoic turtle’s steady drumbeats. Beautifully hand-wrought typography and palpable emotions propel Lambert’s wildly imaginative scenarios into the turbulent slipstream that entwines our era’s pop culture and high art.
The stylish drawings in Lychee Light Club (Vertical, 328 pp., $16.95) are almost overwhelmed by a bizarre plot concerning androgynous teen boys who disembowel their stacked teacher and employ a lychee-fruit-powered robot to hold a schoolgirl hostage. Swan-diving into the sex-and-violence tributary of Japanese manga, Usamaru Furuya’s slick visions of industrial wastelands and ruptured flesh linger long after the curtain falls on his extravagant theater of cruelty.
Perhaps more simpatico with America’s repressed id, Daniel Clowes’s Mister Wonderful (Pantheon, 80 pp., $19.95) follows middle-aged depressive Marshall on a blind date with neurotic Natalie. Clowes’s sophisticated layouts include dialogue balloons that wander off the page or are obscured by captions, emphasizing Marshall’s agitated struggle against his inner misanthrope.
The angst gets ramped up in AnimalMan #1 (DC, 32 pp., $2.99, ongoing series), part of DC Comics’ reboot of their venerable, if long-in-the-tooth, franchise characters. The ever-sharp Jeff Lemire delivers a touching and multifaceted script (opening with a Believer magazine interview of the hero), while Travel Foreman’s drawings morph from anemically spare domestic scenes to a startlingly sanguinary cliff-hanger.
Brian Azzarello’s typically hard-boiled dialogue sprouts poetic rhythms in Spaceman (Vertigo, 32 pp., $2.99 each, nine-issue series), in which one panel’s “May Day May Day” alert segues into an alarm clock braying “New Day New Day,” causing a simian-faced bruiser to mutter “no way no way . . . it’s the same fuck old day.” The verbal flow is complemented by Eduardo Risso’s dynamic compositions, with one sequence featuring hands playing rock-paper-scissors, interrupted by a fourth flashing the bird. This rocket-paced saga of virtual hookers, drowning cities, and an underclass distracted by celebrities envisions a future dystopia already penciled into our collective datebook.
In contrast, Locke & Key: Clockworks (IDW, 32 pp., $2.99 each, six-issue series) spelunks our colonial past, grafting gothic horror onto the Revolutionary War. Part of an intertwined series of H.P. Lovecraft–inspired titles by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, Clockworks features split-screen views of British cruelty aboveground and cinematic pans of demonic battles below.
While purportedly based on fact, the American history found in The Manara Library Volume 1 (Dark Horse, 208 pp., $59.99) is barely less twisted than the horror fantasias of Clockworks. Hugo Pratt, a professed admirer of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Zane Grey, wrote one of the two tales collected here, “Indian Summer,” originally published in Italy in 1983. But it is Milo Manara’s lithe and lusty women and tautly intercut action sequences that galvanize a narrative rife with incest, deceitful preachers, racism, and vengeful slaughter. Not the Tea Party’s Pilgrims, and all the more believable for it.
Speaking of politics, Go Fish (How to Win Contempt and Influence People) (Akashic Books, 224 pp., $18.95) offers sprightly polemics to usher in the election year. Mr. Fish (a/k/a Dwayne Booth) skewers past administrations (Bush on his knees planting flag-draped coffins for Earth Day) and also hammers the current regime (a desperately smiling Obama sits in a pumpkin patch under the sign “Welcome Great Recovery”). And since we’re choosing “Bests,” consider this for the cartoon crown: A long-haired artist turns from his painting of a bald gent, which he has labeled “FUCKING ASSHO,” to ask the man posing for that portrait, “Can I have a grant so I can finish my art?”
Behold! Smarter and way ballsier than any “joke” painting by Richard Prince, it’s the gag panel as conceptual art.