Best Comics of 2010

The Institute’s comics department may receive far less attention than its audio/visual brethren, but as department chair I will continue to extol the virtues of the medium to any and all mildly interested parties. When compared alongside music and film, comics does require the most human interaction, particularly in the sharing of discoveries. If Professor Flores was particularly excited about a movie, you might add it to your Netflix queue. If Dr. Howell was adding an LP to the fourth quarter syllabus, you might download it wirelessly to your iPhone. But if I want you to read the new Chris Ware book, you’re going to have to set foot in a bookstore, or, god forbid, a comics store. The twenty-first century has not devised an effective means of disseminating or reading comics digitally. Not to say it won’t happen… but chances are, for the foreseeable future, your best bet is to borrow my copy. And maybe we’ll get coffee too.

It seems rather fitting that the finest graphic offerings of 2010 are all achievements in comics storytelling and craft. It’s hard to argue that comics can accomplish things that other media cannot, especially when comics-in-adaptation are all the rage these days. Scott Pilgrim was one of the best movies of the year; The Walking Dead is a new AMC hit; and Disney’s new Marvel properties are toy shelf gold. These five books, however, need to be appreciated in the form the artists intended.

The Top 5 Comics of 2010

5. Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

Pantheon

This book actually came out in 2009, but its second printing was prominently displayed at booksellers this year, so I’m declaring it eligible. Plus, it fits my only-in-comics theme rather nicely.

When I was a kid, I hated David Mazzucchelli for no reason other than he wasn’t Frank Miller. Miller’s Daredevil was my comics lightswitch; I went from loving superheroes, Shogun Warriors, and tobacco store wireracks to loving comics, comic shops, and Wednesday afternoons. When Miller turned over the art duties on the book to Mazzucchelli, however, I felt cheated. I was even suspicious of the decision to put Maz in charge of the visuals for Miller’s Batman: Year One, the follow-up to his seminal Dark Knight Returns. Clearly, I just was too young to appreciate a great cartoonist in the making.

Years later, when I rediscovered comics as an artform, Maz was self-publishing Rubber Blanket, which challenged not only my understanding of what comics could do, but also my impertinent and obsessive need to only buy comics that would fit snugly into pre-fabricated plastic sleeves. Quiet for more than a decade (with occasional contributions to anthologies like Zero Zero and Drawn & Quarterly), Maz returned with his first proper graphic novel.

Asterios Polyp tells the story of a professor of architecture who, at age fifty, begins a life-changing journey into his past, present, and future. The technical grace that Maz lends to this character and his narrative is complemented by the expressive passion that comprises the story of Polyp’s ex-wife, Hana. It’s a beautiful story of love and redemption framed by allusions to Greek myths and explorations into human duality. The comics page is the perfect stage for this kind of exploration: the juxtaposition of styles and techniques evidenced clearly and distinctly. Plus, it’s nice to be able to root for the asshole, once in a while, especially when he discovers the errors of his ways.

4. Wednesday Comics – Various

DC Comics

In 2009, McSweeney’s 33 was the San Francisco Panorama, a reminder that, once upon a time, newspapers were beautiful, expansive, and artistic. Included in this one-time edition was a sixteen-page comics section, full-size and glorious, hearkening back to Will Eisner’s Spirit heyday and featuring work by contemporary cartooning geniuses like Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes.

The McSweeney’s experiment may have been partly inspired by DC’s twelve-week Wednesday Comics event, which began in July of 2009 and was collected this year. Forget Marvel’s uninspired Siege or DC’s convoluted Blackest Night (which, in all fairness, is as fun as superheroes battling zombies in space can be, but it’s just indigestible without years of buildup and foreknowledge); this is the one capes-n-tights collection from twenty-ten that deserves to be on your bookshelf.

Except you’re going to need a really tall shelf.

For twelve Wednesdays, DC published a fifteen page comics “newspaper,” collecting stories of its more famous (and even lesser known) characters in a monumental 14 x 20 format. To make this project even more impressive, the artistic teams on the series were comprised of some of the most innovative and creative talents in the industry. There’s an Adam Strange story by Paul Pope, Batman by Azzarello and Risso (the team that brought us the crime classic 100 Bullets), and Metamorpho by Mike Allred and Neil Gaiman.

The oversized format is a reminder that digital comics readers can’t (currently) hope to reproduce the effect of outstanding comics design: the art in the panels and the art of the panels, composed and executed in order to be appreciated simultaneously as individual story elements as well as one, unified piece of artwork.

3. X’ed Out – Charles Burns

Pantheon

I read a lot of Tintin when I was growing up. I think many comics fans of my generation are in the same boat here — for the longest time, these were the only comics of quality available in libraries and bookstores.

Charles Burns, whose work is now available in bookstores all over the world, thanks primarily to the engrossing Black Hole, pays homage to Herge’s young adventurer in the first volume of his newest work, X’ed Out. From the art style employed for the main character’s dream sequence to the cover design to the very pattern on the mysterious egg objects (recognize this?), Burns twists his signature themes of horror and suspense into a Tintin-style tale.

Despite the obvious reverential nods to the Belgian master, this is vintage Burns, in full-color. One-eyed omelet cooks, potty-mouthed lizard people, and subculture performance artists all intersect in an unsettling, unraveling mystery. The only drawback to the work is that there isn’t enough of it, and we’re going to have to wait months (or longer if the Black Hole production pace is any indication) for the next chapter.

2. Wilson – Daniel Clowes

Drawn & Quarterly

One of the things that strikes me about the new graphic novel from the creator of Ghost World and David Boring, in retrospect, is just how much goddam better this is than Chris Ware’s latest installment in the Acme Novelty Library.

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Chris Ware, and without hesitation will acknowledge him as the finest cartoonist working today. The fact that Lint, the story comprising the twentieth volume of the seminal Acme series, is absent from this list is astonishing. It’s good… but by comparison to his other work, and, especially by contrast to this book by Clowes… not up to snuff.

Both Lint and Wilson tell the story of an obnoxious malcontent, a fairly reprehensible human being, and how he came to be that way. Both books mix black humor with genuine sadness, and both artists take very novel approaches to comics storytelling. The difference is in the finished product: Lint feels sluggish and overwrought; Wilson is a perfectly composed gem.

First of all, each page of Clowes’s book is a self-contained comic unto itself. Individually, a single sheet could have been featured in a new McSweeney’s comics section: wonderfully paced and cleverly executed, complete with punchline in the final panel. Clowes employs a different art style, furthermore, from page to page, alternating between political cartoon caricature to painstaking realism, and any of a dozen different aesthetics in between.

The alternating styles is more than just Clowes showing off his range. The closure (didn’t think I was going to get through a comics lecture without a McCloud reference, did you?) engendered page to page is now even more profound. In fact, part of what makes this book so damn amazing is the development between the pages. We talk about how comics works panel-to-panel; Wilson explores how the narrative can float into being page-to-page. Story elements are revealed and plot developments are intimated in an almost sit-com-esque rapidity, all in the imaginary space that inhabits the turn-of-a-page.

1. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 – Los Bros Hernandez

Fantagraphics

Thank god for the Hernandez brothers. Anytime I need to convert someone to the medium, I pull out a volume from the longest-running and most successful alternative comic series of all time.

And anytime I want to show someone how much power and potency can live in a single brushstroke, I reference the undisputed master of black-and-white comics art, Jaime Hernandez.

In the third volume of the New Stories series, Jaime takes a break from the Penny Century saga (I admit: it was getting a little wearisome) and creates one of his most chilling and affecting Hoppers stories ever, “Browntown.” It’s a story from Maggie’s past focusing on her little brother Calvin, and, maybe most importantly, a standalone tale of adolescence and tragedy that serves as an introduction to Jaime’s genius. Never read any L&R before? Don’t worry. Start here.

But wait there’s more..! Like any good volume in the series, we get a two-part Gilbert story, a wonderfully bizarre big-boobied bonanza as only Beto can deliver. “Scarlet by Starlight” and “Killer * Sad Girl * Star” is a Life Aquatic in an Andean jungle populated by sex-crazy monkey dwellers woven into the developing story of Killer’s film career. Again, minimal background knowledge required. It really is just as weird as it sounds. And finally, Jaime’s two-part “Love Bunglers” is a modern Hoppers tale that helps pull “Browntown” into focus.

Don’t let the “#3″ dissuade you. If you’re a fan of L&R, you’ve read this book and know what I’m talking about. If not, become one. These two cartoonists embody everything comics fans love about the medium. They are master storytellers first and foremost, and the language of comics is never more beautiful.