Art

2014’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels Put the Real in Surreal

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From Victor Hugo’s righteous rage of yore to dystopian futures that look less like science fiction and more like tomorrow’s Twitter feed, comics put the real in surreal in 2014.

Writer David Hine and artist Mark Stafford’s adaption of Victor Hugo’s melodramatic 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs (SelfMadeHero, $19.95) reveals why one critic of the French original called it “the maddest book in recognized literature.” Mutilated as a child when his face is slashed into a perpetual smile by evil sideshow exhibitors, Gwynplaine grows into a traveling thespian whose ruinous destiny is to call bullshit on the ruling class’s rapacious greed: “The paradise of the rich is made out of the hell of the poor.” Although his visage inspired Batman’s most splendiferous villain, the Joker, Gwynplaine’s commonsense polemics still resonate, whether in Occupy protests or speeches by Elizabeth Warren.

With a narrative as nimble as its lithe lead character — “Hex” Spencer sports fetching Red Cross tattoos on her shoulders — A Night of Gatecrashing / Book One (Ghost Robot, $10) imagines a megatropolis where armored ambulances race between neighborhoods divided as effectively by class as by steel gates. Artist Sutu’s Day-Glo palette redlines the action meter, while Zachary Mortensen’s whip-smart plot interweaves corporate terrorism with street-level heroics.

A visual sonic boom, Sing No Evil (Abrams Comic Arts, $24.95) follows an avant-metal band with more than your average dysfunctions — the drummer is a brown bear who hibernates at inopportune moments, the lead singer stutters, and the bassist believes he has jammed with everyone from medieval monks to the Doors. Author JP Ahonen wryly captures the grind of day jobs and night rehearsals, while illustrator KP Alare’s cartoonish acrobatics believably conjure a rival act whose bestial tunes truly slay the audience.

Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou’s Skies of Fire (Mythopoeia, $5) focuses on Captain Helen Pierce, the only officer in the royal fleet of brass and wood dirigibles with the balls to chase bloodthirsty pirates into the Expanse, a realm of perpetual storm clouds and nihilistic gods. This steampunk epic is given believable visual heft by Pablo Peppino’s sweeping vistas and Bryan Valenza’s vintage coloring.

Thumb through the 720 oversize pages of 75 Years of Marvel (Taschen) and you might wonder, “How can they do this for $200?” In this lavish volume (some pages are printed in metallic inks) you can trace Jack Kirby’s gargantuan contribution to pop culture through five decades of superheroes, antiheroes, and suffering gods; Steve Ditko’s dynamic Spider-Man designs; Gene Colan’s masterful life drawings for Howard the Duck; Jim Steranko’s op-art extravaganzas for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.; and scores of others, proving that yesterday’s pulpy comic pages still outshine today’s CGI glitz.

In The Harlem Hellfighters (Broadway Books, $16.95), writer Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, chronicles the genuine heroics of African American citizens who volunteered for service in the First World War, some inspired by recruiting posters proclaiming, “Colored Man Is No Slacker.” Artist Caanan White’s fluid ink contours capture both the grace of young bodies in motion and the grisly havoc bullets and bombs inflict on them. Facing racism on two continents, one character explains why he’s so eager to fight: “White folks payin’ me to kill other white folks? Glory, hallelujah!”

As befits the director of the classic shocker Halloween, John Carpenter’s Asylum (Storm King Comics, $19.99) features high-end production values, with artist Leonardo Manco’s stacked horizontal panels providing cinematic thrust to this tale of bloody deviltry in the City of Angels. A hotheaded detective and a fallen priest battle evil in a world going so wrong that the line, “If it’s any consolation, I was trying to kill you,” ranks as buddy banter.

Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed (Abrams Comic Arts, $24.95) delineates the true horror story of our coming weather apocalypse through crisp illustrations explaining the implacable scientific facts, as well as fantasias of environmental ninjas blasting discount-store Santas (who represent wasteful consumption of energy-intensive junk).

Although as a species we may be going down the climate tubes, Second Avenue Caper (Hill and Wang, $22.00) proves anew that individuals can make a difference. Writer Joyce Brabner and artist Mark Zingarelli’s true tale of early-1980s gay activists fighting the AIDS epidemic by running illegal antiviral drugs (and pot) from south of the border is as funny, and harrowing, as its mix of drag queens, mobsters, Cheez Whiz, and eulogies promises.

Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey (First Second, $16.99) recounts the Englishman’s obsession with reaching the South Pole in the early 1900s. Through simple but expressive drawings, Bertozzi recounts how the band of 28 men — but none of their 36 sled dogs — survived more than a year trapped on the ice, a monument to the perseverance of ideals amid the failure of dreams.

Despite decades of diminishing dreams, Jaime Hernandez’s workaday characters continue to persevere. In The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics, $19.99), aging heartthrob Maggie has gained even more weight but is still alluring to her ex, Ray Dominguez. Like anyone entering middle age, the once and future lovers deal with the loss — whether through emotional barriers or death — of those they love. Since 1981, with pitch-perfect dialogue and impeccable draftsmanship, Hernandez has conveyed more entertaining (and poignant) drama than just about any contemporary filmmaker or novelist. There’s a word for what this guy is doing with his life’s work — can someone give him a MacArthur grant and make it official?

Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, $34.99) surveys the early, graphically fecund years of the most outrageous of the original cadre of underground cartoonists. Wilson, born in 1941, turned his id inside out and vomited forth exquisitely crosshatched panels for such tales as “Captain Piss Gums and His Pervert Pirates.” His massively hung fellas and meaty chicks alternately battle and fuck, with orifices of all sexes and species fair game. The best drawings coalesce into orgies of entwined, bulging, wriggling lines — the grotesque tickling the sublime.

Picking up the mantle of the defiant weirdness of underground comix (if not their outré sex and violence), Rob Davis’s The Motherless Oven (SelfMadeHero, $19.95) creates a world in which schoolkids protect themselves from downpours of knives by using café tables as umbrellas and government-enforced “Deathdays” replace birthdays. Truly bizarre household idols and old-biddy police officers populate this mind-bending tale, and Davis’s deft monochrome drawings confirm one tossed-off bit of dialogue: “You can sell dead gods as art. People need art.”