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As I get everything ready for Issue #1 and beyond, I thought I would give everyone a sneak peak at what gets my motor going. This has been the year that I rediscovered sequential art. I had read comics in the past and never thought a whole lot of them other than they seemed cool, but just “not for me”. I always liked the idea of comics and wanted to like them, but I just couldn’t get into a bunch of superhero stories. This all changed over the coarse of some weekend this fall when my buddy Sean (who runs a snarky music blog) took me to hang out with his family out in the country. We were all hanging out and at some point I made a ridiculous statement about comic books not being for me and not being really into superheros, etc. Now I think, “Can someone really be that ignorant about comics?” The answer is YES, and I was actually that person just a few months ago. Sean, being the good friend that he is, was flabbergasted and a bit offended so he handed me The Walking Dead: Vol. 1 by Robert Kirkman and the complete Bone by Jeffrey Smith. After putting down Bone when I finished it in a marathon 15 hour reading session (not even joking), I was struck by the fact that the medium makes so much sense to me. I was in love. I hadn’t been so enamored by something in a long time, but I wasn’t quite sure why.
I was on the road driving around the country playing music and a few short weeks later I found myself in a huge and weird book store somewhere near Chattanooga, Tennessee and picked up Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud and took a couple of days to read through it and try to digest it all. Reinventing Comics is basically a textbook about comics written in comic book form (and the sequel to the highly influential Understanding Comics). I was blown away by everything in the first 2/3 of the book where McCloud laid out the mechanics behind the medium. (The last 1/3 of the book is basically his opinions about online comics taking over print comics in importance, etc and I don’t really agree with any of that.) It put the medium in an intellectual context for me which, in a totally lame way on my part, allowed me to enjoy it on all levels. I then realized that comics, at their best, are the synthesis of great artwork and great storytelling and how they can bolster each other exponentially. How had I been missing this for so long?
So, I have been exploring the world of sequential art like a kid discovering Willy Wonka’s factory over the past few months and here are some things that are solidifying my love of comics.
1. Hey, Wait… – This is from the ridiculously great artist/writer Jason, who is from Norway. Jason has a way of telling the most heartbreakingly beautiful stories using mostly just pictures (The Living and The Dead only has 7 lines of dialogue). Hey, Wait… is a story about two childhood best friends and the effect their friendship has on their adult lives. This book almost moved me to tears (the only time this has happened while reading comics). Every single book from Jason is worth about $30 more than they ask you to pay for it. I’m not joking. Jason is easily one of the most exciting and profound artists in the medium. His animalization of characters is genius on a level different from the classic Maus by Art Spiegelman. In Maus, the mice are obviously representative of the humble nature of the Jewish people being brutalized by the Nazis (Cats). Jason seems to see the world where everyone is just a slight variation of each other and allows his stories to be somehow relate-able and fantasy. Jason is not out to reinvent the comic world (he almost exclusively draws with standard 6-panel pages), but his storytelling is so effective through his use of imagery. There might not be a more wonderful place in the world than in the spaces between the cells that Jason draws.
2. The Walking Dead – This zombie collection written by Robert Kirkman is certainly not unfamiliar to anyone who has walked into a comic store in the past 6 years. The story follows a small-town Kentucky cop who is barely surviving in a world filled with zombies. In the past 10 years or so, there has been a sickening obsession with zombies/vampires/people of the night, and this is one of the few aspects of that movement that I love wholeheartedly. Since I first picked Vol. 1 up, I couldn’t help but notice the glaring similarities to the film 28 Days Later, but where that movie ends, this series really gets going. It is often completely irritating to have a zombie movie or show or book or whatever just leave off at some arbitrary point in the story. The Walking Dead plows past that point and painfully trudges on through the unavoidable death and destruction that would actually be reality if zombies took over the world. You get the feeling after a while that no heavily armored army battalion is ever coming to their rescue and Kirkman is going to write this thing out to the painful and tragic end. It’s an exercise in seeing a story to the end no matter how painful or sad it gets. This series is not for those who can’t handle much more drama than Strangers In Paradise. This has to be one of the best serial stories of the decade and it has been going on through 11 trade paperbacks (66 issues) and hasn’t seem to lost steam yet.
3. Essex County– This is a collection of 3 connected graphic novels by Jeff Lemire, and is approximately reason #900 why Top Shelf Productions is at the top of the comic game with a consistent and constant output of the best examples of the medium’s non-superhero stories done well. This collection is based on a small town in Canada and delves deeply into the lives and history of several of its residents. Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse are all incredible stories about the things that connect us, the things that separate us, and how sometimes that separation is what connects us after all. I greatly recommend you read these stories together in the collection because they build so incredibly well off each other and each makes the others more potent and meaningful. Throughout the reading of this collection one can feel the roots of this county spreading through the pages weaving the lives of these characters tightly together into a tapestry much richer and vital when viewed together from afar.
4. Asterios Polyp – This graphic novel from David Mazzuchelli was definitely the biggest surprise for me in my comic adventures. I picked up this book off-handedly at my local library and was completely floored by it’s contents. David Mazzuchelli is a master of the comics medium and I mean that in every possible sense of the term. This book is a story about a college professor (Asterios) who is struggling to reconcile and separate his intellect and professional status as an influential architect with the rest of his life (especially his struggling relationship with his wife Hana). At times, this is a classic “Boys and Girls are different” story, but it is really so much more. Mazzuchelli’s paneling is often very Eisner-ish and each brush stroke is inseparable from the narrative. His artwork drives the story and his story molds his artwork. There is one scene at the end of the book where Asterios and Hana are having a conversation and the visual depiction of their differences in communication and self is so incredibly simple yet profound that I will never forget it. This is style and aesthetic at their contextual best.
5. Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire – This is the oldest bit of the bunch and is a colonial era tale of adventurer Wolverine Macalistaire. Think Will Oldham meets Davy Crockett meets Paul Newman and you wouldn’t be too far off. William Messner-Loebs put this out originally in the 80s and IDW has recently released it in its completeness in 2 volumes. It is half-historical, mostly hilarious, and completely riveting. Their is such natural form to his lines that capture the wilderness aspects of the story so perfectly. The storytelling can get complex at times and is often hard to follow because of the layers of history, characters, and values, but the story and artwork are beautiful and well-worth adding to your collection. This may not be your typical comic reading, but is an incredible example of the capabilities of the breadth of the medium. Also check out the historical work of Rick Gaery.
6. Scott Pilgrim– I was given this one by my buddy Ty (like many of these) and he was like, “Here, this is funny and it references a bunch of bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and is basically about this dude who wants to date this chick and has to defeat her 7 evil ex-boyfriends before he can date her.” Sold. This collection by Brian Lee O’Malley (Vol. 6 will be out soon!) is completely irreverent, void of pretense, and absolutely crammed with Saturday morning comedy. I sometimes feel guilty for liking this so much like I’m a little kid again first discovering the Green Ranger, but then I remember how good it is and I don’t feel guilty at all. O’Malley has given us Yanks a near-manga-style comedy that seems vital in our ironic hipster-filled lives. This one is for having fun, and it’s full of it.
7. EmiTown– The only web-comic of my list is the product of one of the best comic artists you’ve never heard of (I hate saying that, but I totally believe it), but that won’t be the case for long. Emi Lenox has been churning out this web-comic (and 3 other sites) for the past few years and her work is nothing short of incredible. She has interned for some of the biggest names in the business in Portland all while honing her craft and I would not be surprised if her output for 2010 put her on everyone’s “Best Of” lists for next year. Her voice is original and fresh, her style is broad and fantastic, and everything from her lines to her type styles hint at her future notoriety.
8. A Drifting Life– This sprawling memoir and Japanese comic history lesson by Yoshihiro Tatsumi was my introduction to the world of Japanese comics. While the US was busy churning out one superhero comic after another, the rest of the world were having their own aesthetic trajectories and Tatsumi was one of the leaders in post-WWII comics with his introduction and coining of gekiga which was an attempt to separate his work from the childish manga of his day. Much has been made about him being the Japanese equivalent to Will Eisner, and that’s not too far off the mark, but Tatsumi’s style is stark in its realism and carries with it the emotional heft which that would imply. His stories are often sad, often joyful, and constantly filled with the wonder of discovering life each day at a time. His style is inherently fresh from a Western perspective due to him being influenced heavily by Japanese comic-godfather Osamu Tezuka. This 840 page work is Tatsumi’s masterstroke after a long career that has been partially reprinted here in the States (thank God!) by Drawn and Quarterly.
9. Earthboy Jacobus – Is this the same guy who came up with Earthworm Jim? Sure is. Hey, didn’t this guy do the artwork for some Five Iron Frenzy stuff? Yep. Is he one of the most luscious and rich storytellers and illustrators of independant American comics? Absolutely. Doug TenNapel has a habit of putting out short graphic novels that are economical in scope and brushstrokes, but vast in depth and richness. He has a number of works like Creature Tech, Tommysaurus Rex, Iron West, and Monster Zoo (among others) and each one is gorgeously textured and a perfect story. Don’t expect to draw too many lines between his stories because each one has an identity and backbone all its own. EJ, the story of a boy from another dimension, is akin to a buddy flick and also kind of like Cop and 1/2 where a young boy helps an aging cop learn what it means to be an active part of a family. So, think Cop and 1/2 meets E.T. meets The Neverending Story and you’ll almost be there.
10. Swallow Me Whole– I haven’t even finished this book, and I am including it in here. That’s how powerful Nate Powell is. Nate Powell has a visceral style that I typically stray from because his lean lines and characters often make me uncomfortable. That’s also what I love about Nate Powell. This book, which is the winner for Best Graphic Novel at this year’s Eisner Awards, is full of heart, heartache, and wonder. Powell’s documentation of imagination is gripping and forceful, yet delicate and melancholy. There is a small one-page piece in his collection Sounds of Your Name that might be one of my favorite comic pieces of all time and its a baby bird in a nest figuring out the details of life. You’ll know it if you ever see it. You should go see it. There’s about a million reasons why Powell is a powerhouse in today’s comic world. Also, he lives in the same town as I do and that makes him inherently cool (or does that make me cool?). Who cares. This book is ama-zine (get it!? No? ok).
Other works I’ve dug in the past few months:
Bone by Jeff Smith
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Goodbye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson
Tommysauras Rex by Doug TenNapel
WE3 by by Morrison/Quietly
The Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan/Henrichon
The Contract With God trilogy by Will Eisner
Life Sucks by Jessica Abel
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud
Pop Gun War: Gift by Farel Dalrymple
Batman: The Long Halloween by Loeb/Sale
Superspy– Matt Kindt
Black Hole– Charles Burns
Iron West– Doug TenNapel
Monster Zoo– Doug TenNapel
Creature Tech– Doug TenNapel
Why Are You Doing This?– Jason
Ghost World– Daniel Clowes
Sounds of Your Name– Nate Powell
Y: The Last Man- Vol. 1-4 – Brian K Vaughan
Maus Vol. 1+2– Art Spiegelman
Wimbledon Green by Seth
Caricatures by Daniel Clowes
Lone Racer by Nicholas Mahler
Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown
Please Release by Nate Powell
The Living and the Dead by Jason
Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Ex Machina: Fact v. Fiction by Brian K. Vaughan
That’s all I can think of for now. If you’re still reading, then I commend you. My love of sequential art would not exist if one or two of my friends didn’t hand me something and tell me to read it. You know your friends better than I do, so pick out something they’d like from the library, your personal collection, or bought from your local comic shop and lend it to them with the hope that they love it so much they never want to give it back. Ty, don’t worry I still have all the comic books I borrowed and am keeping them in good condition and I am just waiting til I see you next.