Between the time it became public that I’d be an Eisner judge and when the nominations were settled on and announced, I didn’t want to go “on record” about what my favorite books of the year were, but now that the Eisner nominations are out in the open, I’ll go ahead and drum up a list. I did mention a few standouts over at ChasingRay.com a while back–those being Capacity by Theo Ellsworth, Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware and Crogan’s Vengeance by Chris Schweizer–so I’ll not repeat myself here, but here’s my list of my other favorite comics and comics-related publications from 2008, in no particular order:
Gus and his Gang – Christophe Blain (First Second) – The amazing French artist Christophe Blain is one of the best cartoonists working today and it’s great to see his work given top notch treatment by First Second. This is a beautiful collection of stories by Blain that turn the traditional tale of the American Old West on its head: they’re all romances–or, at least, they’re all about men and women interacting, as opposed to the standard genre trope of gun play. Blain’s cartooning is as stunning as ever, and his colorist, Clémence (who’s, unbelievably, uncredited in this edition) turns in a truly spectacular coloring job that shows how comics coloring can serve an actual narrative purpose, rather than just making things look pretty. If it really comes down to it, I prefer the story from Blain’s Isaac the Pirate, but this is the book I’d pull off the shelf if I knew nothing about Blain.
Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsely and Chester the Molester – Bob Levin (Fantagraphics) – 2008 saw a ton of great books about cartoonists–from the great coffee table books about Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, to the fabulous Bill Mauldin biography by Todd DePastino–but Most Outrageous, by lawyer and longtime Comics Journal contributor Bob Levin was my favorite. This fascinating look into the life and legal travails of Hustler cartoonist Dwaine Tinsley, who was accused of molesting his daughter over a five year period in the 80s, touches on all sorts of thorny, provocative and uncomfortable issues: the role of art in society, the social value (if any) to vulgarity and pornography, the relationship between an artist’s actions and his art, the unhealthy relationships that can develop between family members (and not just the obvious father/daughter one alleged here). It’s a fantastic book that I’ve seen precious little press about.
Thoreau at Walden – John Porcellino (Hyperion/CCS) – Is there a better combination of word and image than John Porcellino and Henry David Thoreau? Porcellino’s spare but beautiful drawings are the perfect companion for the prose he chooses to excerpt from Thoreau in this fantastic book that seems to have fallen below the critical radar. If you’re a longtime fan of Procellino’s comics, it’ll take you a bit to get used to seeing his artwork with “tones,” but he uses them as sparingly and tastefully as you would expect.
Bodyworld – Dash Shaw (www.dashshaw.com) – I really enjoyed Dash Shaw’s 2008 book Bottomless Bellybutton as well, but if I had to pick one thing by him from this year, it’d be his serialized webcomic, Bodyworld, that wrapped up this year but which will soon reappear in printed form from Pantheon Books. I think my preference is partly just because of subject matter (I hunger continually for well-done science fiction comics) and because I really love seeing h0w Dash uses color in his work when it’s available.
Petey and Pussy – John Kerschbaum (Fantagraphics) – What more can I say? This book’s #%&*in’ hilarious. Oh, I guess this: it’s also beautifully drawn. For the love of god, someone please put that poor bird out of his misery!
Dragon Head – Minetaro Mochizuki (Tokyopop) – There was a ton of really solid Manga going on in 2008 (Real, Emma, and Hikaru no Go all come immediately to mind) but the one that seemed to generate the most press was Monster–perhaps because it wrapped up in 2008. For my money, though, I preferred Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head, which also wrapped up in 2008. It’s a solid post-apocalyptic thriller that starts out entirely within a collapsed train tunnel, then, once the characters extricate themselves, we follow them through a devastated Japan as they search for their home town and try–along with a few other stragglers–to find out exactly what’s caused the destruction of their country.
Fuzz and Pluck: Splitsville – Ted Stearn (Fantagraphics) – 2008 saw the release of the last “floppy” of Splitsville, but it was almost immediately followed by this beautiful collected edition. Many reviews of this series seem to make a lot of the world the characters inhabit, but what really drives the book is the characters themselves: Pluck, the smart and confident plucked chicken, and his pal Fuzz, the sweet somewhat dopey stuffed bear. In this story arc they wind up separated, with Fuzz getting involved in a bizarre scheme involving a ferry and Pluck as an unexpectedly effective gladiator.
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures – Madden & Abel (First Second) – Maybe it’s my bias as an occasional comics teacher, but I think this is a genuine landmark book. I wrote a lengthy review of this a while back but in a nutshell: those of us who teach comics finally have a decent textbook–one that’s organized to work in conjunction with a class schedule, one that pretty much covers all the bases, and one that’s genre-independent.
Travel – Yuichi Yokoyama (PictureBox) – I was surprised about how much I wound up liking this book. My taste in comics is generally fairly conservative–at least in the sense that I tend toward books that have at least a traditional narrative underpinning. Travel, on the other hand, has pretty much no narrative at all. Things happen, sure, but there aren’t really characters or a plot in the traditional sense. What there is, though, is a stunning, immersive graphical world that’s utterly original and strangely captivating.
Comics Comics – ed. by Timothy Hodler and Dan Nadel (PictureBox) – For years, people have been grousing about how there’s not a critical comics publication that’s “between Wizard and The Comics Journal.” By this, what they mean (I think) is a publication of serious comics criticism and analysis that’s well-written, but without the “attitude” that TCJ is known for–and a publication that’s open to discussions of a broader section of the comics art form. That’s pretty close to what Comics Comics is, although it has its own “attitude” of sorts (is there writing that doesn’t have some obvious editorial bent–if so, would you want to read it?). The only reason I can think of that seemingly very few people know of and read Comics Comics is that it’s printed as a gigantic newsprint broadsheet paper, a format that comics shop folks probably don’t dig since apparently anything that isn’t the exact shape and size of a standard a 6 x 9 inch comic book tends to make comics retailers’ brains overload and explode like the androids from “I, Mudd” on the old Star Trek show.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks – Derf (SLG Publishing) – Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is a work of fiction, but it’s pretty clearly one that’s based on some personal experiences by the book’s author, cartoonist Derf. In about 99.99% of comics I’ve ever read that take place in high school–whether semi-fictional or autobiographical–the characters seem to fall conveniently into the old tired Breakfast Club-esque stereotypes: The Nerd, The Jock, etc. What makes Punk Rock and Trailer Parks so refreshing in this department is how true-to-life and fleshed out its main character, “The Baron,” is. Add to that the historical interest of the Akron punk scene that was going on at the time and you’ve got a fantastic read.
Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (Mariner Books) – I tried really, really hard to come up with one negative thing about this book and this is the best I did: Tamara Drewe is, formally, pretty much occupying the exact same ground as Simmonds’ last book, Gemma Bovary. If all you can come up to complain about is that this book is just as beautifully drawn and brilliantly conceived as its predecessor, I’d say that’s a big point in ins favor.