What I Read in 2018

In years past, I’ve regularly done “Faves of 20xx” lists of various things–comics, art supplies, documentaries, etc.–that I’ve enjoyed during the year. This year, though, I managed to keep a list of all the comics and comics-related books I read throughout the year and so instead of a Faves list, I’m just going to do a quick blurb about each of these items instead. Here goes–in roughly the order I read them (other than series I read more than one volume of–those are grouped together):

 Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip – by Jove Jansson 

I’ve been reading through this tremendous volume on and off since I received it for Christmas a while back and I completed it at the beginning of 2018. For many years, the Moomin newspaper comic strip was a work shrouded in mystery and rumor, chunks of which were passed around in photocopied form from cartoonist to cartoonist. This complete collection from Drawn & Quarterly is a blessing–every strip published, including the end of the series that was taken over largely by Lars Jansson. There’s not much I can say about this strip that’s not already been said other than that it should be required reading for anyone interested in comics. Jansson’s designs for the various characters populating Moominvalley are amazing and unlike pretty much anything else that’s ever graced the interior of a newspaper. What’s most striking about this strip is that it exists at all; it seems to break every conventional rule of newspaper strip cartooning: the stories are often bizarre, the politics and messages of the stories are brazenly anti-authoritarian, even her drawing breaks the “rules” of cartooning–employing in-story elements as panel borders and the like. 


 Les royaumes du nord,  Vols 1 & 2 – by Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie (French)


I bought the first volume of this in French a while back but since then there’s been an English translation of the series. Just because I’m an obsessive book nerd and I want to have a matching set, though, I’ve been soldiering on with the French versions, one of which I read at the beginning of the year and the other of which I completed in the fall. This is, obviously, an adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It’s been years since I read the source material, but from what I recall this seems to be a fairly straightforward adaptation. The thing I like most about this particular adaptation is its drawing style: Oubrerie’s lose, almost impressionistic drawing style works so well with the steampunk-ish Victorian mise-en-scène from the original book. It’s refreshing to see this style of artwork employed for an adaptation like this rather than the usual North American standard neo-realistic “sword and sorcery” style that seems to be the inexplicable default for pretty much every comics adaptation of SF or fantasy work. 


Calamity Jane: The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary, 1852–1903 – by Christian Perrissin and Matthieu Blanchin

This is a solid comics biography that’s only slightly marred by some not-great translation problems. First off: the art is really pretty. It’s lose and animated–and the only color is a subtle sepia wash. The overall look evokes old sepia toned photographs–which I’m sure is exactly the point. The translation here, though, is a bit buggy–not the actual word choices themselves, but the fact that what must have been large chunks of French text are often replaced with much shorter lines of English text, leaving balloons with huge awkward swaths of empty space.   


Corto Maltese, Under the Sign of Capricorn – by Hugo Pratt

I’ve always loved Pratt’s drawing (I saw a stunning exhibit of it in Lyon not too long ago in fact) but I’ve not actually read any of it until this year. This is the inaugural volume of the recent Corto collection from IDW which wisely starts somewhat mid-stream with this storyline from a now-fairly well developed Pratt. Most of the key characters are in place here and Pratt’s mature, distinctive drawing style is on display. Story-wise, this stuff is all great fun. Corto himself is sort of a nautical Han Solo with bell-bottoms: a chaotic good adventurer and ladies’ man with a heart of gold. Aside from the inexplicably clunky cover design (drop shadow? seriously?) this is a beautiful volume and the reproduction of Pratt’s stunning linework is a thing to behold. 


The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – by Sunny Liew

It’s impressive enough to produce just a really good comic, but here Sunny Liew has managed not just to produce a great comic but has done something almost wholly new with the medium. This is a biography of a completely fictional cartoonist, the eponymous Charlie Chan Hock Chye, whose invented personal history is used by Liew to document and comment on the history of Malaysia and Singapore. In doing so, he shows us “Hock Chye’s” work throughout his life and to do so Liew impressively mimics an array of period-appropriate cartooning styles that are instantly recognizable to anyone with a knowledge of the medium–from classic newspaper strips to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. While there are points where this conceit strains under it’s self-imposed demands–like a Pogo-esque newspaper comic that, though beautifully drawn, is weighed down awkwardly by its required political allegories–this book is an epic achievement and well deserves all the accolades it’s received. 


The New Mutants: Bill Sienkiewicz Marvel Artist Select Series – By Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz

I was lucky enough to have picked up a copy of this at San Diego a few years back, but only this year got around to sitting down and reading it. I hadn’t read most of this stuff since it came out, and some of the later issues I’d not read at all. Rather than repeat myself, if you want to know my thoughts on this you can read this big blog post I did about it here.


The Castafiore Emerald – by Hergé

Continuing on with my re-read of the Tintin series in sequence, I tackled The Castafiore Emerald early this year. This has always been my favorite Tintin book and this read didn’t change my opinion. It is, though, quite obviously a book that assumes you’ve read a lot of Tintin; the whole story is basically a farcical send-up of the usual Tintin tropes that’ve been established in the previous books in the series–and in some cases, maybe not that farcical, as with Tintin’s championing of the Gypsies in the book. This latter bit seemed to me like a deliberate statement from the author in response to some of Tintin’s more controversial storylines in the past.  


Spy Seal #1 – by Rich Tommaso

This is obviously just the first issue of a multi-part series, but I really enjoyed the opening chapter of the story-to-come. Spy Seal is a stylistic mashup: “funny animal” characters, an overtly Hergé-esque ligne claire drawing style, and mid-sixties Cold War British spy thriller. I’ll most certainly pick up the collected edition of the full story. (In fact, the only real misgiving I have about Spy Seal is why it was presented as individual issues in the first place–an odd choice for the audience this type of comic is likely to draw.)  


Valerian: The Complete Collection Vol. 2 – by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

While the Valerian movie was apparently a huge flop, we should all be thankful that it prompted the release of this new collection of English translations of the source material. I read and enjoyed the first volume last year, but these are the first stories where the Valerian formula is really in place and where drawing-wise the characters have settled into their final designs. You also now start to get some overt political and societal commentary as well. This’d be a good volume to pick up if you’ve never read any Valerian before.


Hicksville – by Dylan Horrocks

I’d somehow managed to make it to 2018 without reading this classic GN of the late 90’s. While there are a few parts of Hicksville that stand out a bit as being overly-of their time, most notably the plot elements that are obvious allusions to 90’s Image Comics, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s as heartfelt a love letter to comics as I can imagine. In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why Hicksville (and Box Office Poison for that matter) isn’t talked about and held in the same popular high esteem as the other big “canonical” late 90’s GNs: Jimmy Corrigan and Blankets.


Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does Jersey – by Peter Bagge

Hate is a seminal comic in my development as a cartoonist. It’s one of the first comics I read as an adult–after having moved away from comics for a while–that made a huge impression on me and I re-read it every few years. While Hate often discussed for its humor or its being emblematic of a particular time period (90’s “grunge”-era) what makes this work so rich and enduring for me is the characters and how well they’re written, especially as they grow and develop in the latter half of the series. I know it’ll probably never happen, but I’d sure love to see a Complete Eightball-style Hate collection. Hate has never been collected in its original trim size and with the latter half of the series in color, as it was originally printed–and certainly never with the original covers, ads, letters, etc. 


Conan le Cimmérien: La Reine de la côte noire – by Jean-David Morvan and Pierre Alary (French)

Pierre Alary is just about at the top of my list of French cartoonists whose work remains criminally untranslated into English… and sadly, owing to copyright laws (Conan is in the public domain in France, but not in the U.S.) this will join the ranks of Alary books we’ll probably never get an English translation of. Alary really gets a chance to show off here, staging some epic battles with lots of gore, lots of combatants, etc. And really, the art here is the appeal for me. Story-wise it’s, ya’ know, a Conan story–so pretty straightforward stuff. I think Dark Horse, who currently has the Conan license in the U.S., recently did an adaptation of this same Howard story. It’d be interesting to compare the two versions against the original at some point. 


Flight 714 – by Hergé

This is the first book in my long Tintin “reread” that’s not actually a reread: I’ve never read the final few Tintin books before now. Unfortunately Flight 714 I found to be a radical drop in quality from Hergé’s previous book–and personal fave–The Castafiore Emerald. The plot of 714 is… well, odd. About half-way through the book the protagonist basically winds up losing all narrative agency, then at the end there’s a pretty egregious deus ex machina incursion/explanation. Add to this some noticeably off-model drawings of the characters and atypical staging (what’s with all the weird, tight panels of characters’ faces?) and Flight 714 is a bit of a disappointment. On the bright side, though: Bob de Moor’s design for the plane, the Carreidas 160, is fantastic. 


Machine Man 1-4 – by Barry Windsor-Smith, Herb Trimpe, and Tom DeFalco

This Marvel mini-series from the 80s had been on my reread list forever and I never acted on partially because I was afraid that the series–which I loved as a child–would have aged really poorly. Did it? Well, the “futuristic” jargon is pretty painful to get through and the plot is decent but not spectacular. You know what didn’t age poorly, though? Barry Windsor-Smith’s completely mind-blowing artwork–including and especially his coloring. I’d love to see an in-depth article written about this book–specifically on how and to what extent Trimpe’s input was actually followed by BWS, and also about the technical aspects of BWS’s coloring. 


Petey & Pussy: Puppy Love by John Kerschbaum

John Kerschbaum is hands-down one of the funniest cartoonists working today–and he’s got great cartooning chops to boot. This second Petey & Pussy collection continues on in the vein of the fist one from 2008: the same hilarious animals-with-human-heads main characters as well as the horrific pet bird and the equally horrific old lady that owns them all. Humor is a neglected genre in contemporary comics and even in that limited sphere Kerschbaum doesn’t seem to get the attention he deserves. If you like stuff by Peter Bagge, Kate Beaton, Michael Kupperman, etc. pick this up for sure. 


Les beaux étes, Cap au Sud (Vol 1) and La Calanque (Vol 2) – by Zidrou and Jordi Lafebre (French)

Alas, yet another series that I started in French only to have an English translation appear shortly thereafter. Anyway… First off: Jordi Lafebre is one of the flat-out best cartoonists putting out work these days. I’d have bought these books if they were written in ancient Sumerian. That said, I definitely enjoyed the first volume of this series a lot more story-wise. Cap au sud begins with a family heading out of town on vacation. By about half-way through the book, though, I was tiring a bit of this seemingly-perfect family doing delightfully charming things… which is exactly the point in the story where a complete bombshell drops that affects everything going forward and colors everything you’ve just read. The second volume, though, doesn’t have any such conflict in the narrative and reads more as just a series of happy anecdotes. It’s all, though, just amazing to look at. 


Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere – by Hilary Chute

Hillary Chute is generally a very astute writer-about and thinker-about comics… which is why I was surprised by my disappointment with this book. It’s not that the writing itself isn’t good (it is, especially the section on comics and illness, for example) but there’s a vast mismatch between what the book purports to do (examine the medium of comics and what it’s well-suited to narrative-wise) and what the book actually is, which is a thorough and insightful examination of a small slice of late-90s/early 2000’s Spiegelman-adjacent creators and books. There’s no mention, for example, of Raina Telgemeier… or of manga at all. If there’s any strain of comics that’s “everywhere” it’s those.  


Sabrina – by Nick Drnaso

I was initially tempted to say that I don’t understand what the big deal is about this book (and it is a big deal–Man Booker nomination, tons of Best Of lists, etc.)… but I’d speculate that I know exactly why this book has gotten the accolades it has–particularly the accolades from the (prose) literary fiction crowd: it’s a story steeped in gravitas, told ploddingly, and drawn in a deliberately dry “Chris Ware meets an airline safety card” diagramatic style that eschews most of comics’ goofier aesthetic trappings.  A lot of people with very good taste in comics loved this book; it just wasn’t for me. (It’s also, curiously, a book about a woman who’s horrifically murdered which gives little attention to the actual murdered woman and instead centers on two dudes and how that affects them. I guess “Women in Refrigerators” isn’t just for the capes and tights crowd any more!)


The Invisibles Vol I – by Grant Morrison and various artists

This is another reread project of mine: in 2018 I started rereading Grant Morrison’s Invisibles from the beginning. I was less familiar with the initial volume than the second, which is the series that hooked me back when they were first coming out. The first volume is a bit haphazard, but in a sort of fun Grant Morrison “everything including the kitchen sink” way. I did, though really struggle with the rotating casts of artists which makes things even more scattershot visually issue-to-issue. (And no, this isn’t part of Morrison’s “master plan” to reinforce the subjective nature of reality or whatever; they just couldn’t keep a steady artist on the damn book.) Oddly, I think the best issue of this first series is the one-off “lower decks” issue, #12, drawn by Steve Parkhouse.  I’m looking forward to getting through the second volume in 2019.


Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe – by Cullen Murphy

This was a surprise stand-out for me in 2018–easily my favorite book about comics of the year. It’s neither analytical nor rigorously historical, but rather, a charming and heartfelt reminiscence about growing up the child of a working cartoonist in postwar Fairfield County, Connecticut, when it was an affordable suburb of NYC and home to a surprising number of professional cartoonists. A must read for fans of mid-century cartooning and commercial illustration.


  Judge Dredd: Cursed Earth,  Vols I and II – by Pat Mills, Mike McMahon, and Brian Bolland

Having grown up in the U.S., I read Judge Dredd via the Eagle reprints, which differ from their original permutations on two important ways: they were in color, and they were completely out of continuity. So, this is one of the first times I’ve read any Dredd extended story arc (the other being Apocalypse War by my favorite Dredd artist, the late Carlos Ezquerra). I generally enjoyed the story–it’s a solid post-apocalyptic road journey done in typical Dredd tongue-in-cheek style–but I have to admit, I often found myself flipping forward in anticipation of the next Bolland-drawn segment. Perhaps someday I’ll gain an appreciation for McMahon’s style. 


Arzach/Le garage hermitique – by Moebius (French) 

This is a big, high-end French language edition of what–along with The Incal–are arguably considered Moebius’s most important works. I love the ongoing Dark Horse Moebius Library, but it’s a mystery to me why these two works remain out of print in English (given that it’s Moebius, some licensing thing is to blame, most likely).  My rudimentary French was not up to the task of tackling the back-matter, which is unfortunate since there’s a ton of interesting-looking material there including in-depth analysis of Moebius’s coloring and his use of photo reference. 


Shiver – by Junji Ito

Like any collection of short stories, Shiver had some hits and misses for me. There were several here that I’d rank among the best/most horrifying Junji Ito stories I’ve read (“Hanging Blimp,” “Honored Ancestors,” “Greased”) and some that seemed somewhat rote, like “Marionette Mansion” and the two stories featuring the fashion model character. The commentary by Ito is sparse–usually just a page after each story, but interesting.



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