I’m interrupting the regularly scheduled Wednesday new comics post in order to heap acclaim upon some of the best things I’ve read through the first half of 2017. With the Eisner Awards ceremony just a few days away (which, by the way, I’ll be attending for the first time; pretty excited about that), it felt like a good time to bestow some additional accolades upon the hardworking creators whose passion for comics continues to push boundaries and enrich the medium.
I’ve been doing these mid-year check-ins for some time now, and I usually know exactly which comics I’d like to single out, resulting in a neat & tidy Top 5. This year, however, my list excludes some books I’m loving, like Grass Kings by Kindt and Jenkins, Avengers by Waid and Del Mundo, 4 Kids Walk into a Bank by Rosenberg and Boss, Hostage by Guy Delisle, and Paper Girls by Vaughan and Chiang. So if you thought those books were good, check these out..!
Royal City – Jeff Lemire
Like the graphic novels that comprised his Essex County trilogy, beginning with 2008’s Tales from the Farm, Lemire’s new book is a realistic family drama set in smalltown North America. Unlike those singular, well-defined stories, however, Royal City is an ongoing title, a format that lends itself to longer “seasons,” if you will, and an opportunity to fully explore the Pike family and the human tremors that epicenter from the titular town. In his afterword, in fact, Lemire mentions being inspired by this Golden Age of Television. And I have to say, the first thing I thought of after reading the first issue was Netflix’s Bloodline. There’s a shaky familiarity to every tense exchange, every terse comment, like the way you’re afraid of a Eugene O’Neill play because of the truths it uncovers.
The inciting event, family patriarch Peter’s stroke, brings the three siblings and their associated baggage into focus. Patrick returns from the big city, where he’s a novelist struggling against writer’s block; Tara is a real estate developer looking to turn the city’s manufacturing center into a resort community; and Richard works at the aforementioned factory – or would work, if he was ever sober. And then there’s one more sibling, Tommy, who moves through the narrative as a haunting memory unique to each family member. We’ve been reading plenty of Lemire books lately, but it struck me that, apart from variant covers and his work on After Death with Scott Snyder, it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to appreciate Lemire’s art. His style is raw, like the emotions each Pike is unable to cope with, but with a brilliant attention to detail, creating a comic that is a layer of puzzles and mystery. It’d be more haunting if it also didn’t feel so disturbingly real. Royal City is a story that perfectly intertwines ghosts with the even more unsettling, the living.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters – Emil Ferris
Emil Ferris’s debut more than lives up to the hype. The Chicago native has created an absolute masterpiece that blends disparate styles, themes, and influences in a way that isn’t just engaging, but marvelously surprising. Karen is a young girl growing up in Chicago in the late 60’s, and she loves Hollywood monsters. She also fancies herself a bit of a detective. So when upstairs neighbor Anka Silverberg dies under mysterious circumstances, our little wannabe werewolf is on the case.
But the central plot point is only the tip of the iceberg with this book. Ferris’s poetic mix of cross-hatched artistry and subtle wordcraft spill across the pages of Karen’s spiral-bound journal, a clear love letter to every one of us who filled up our college-ruled notebooks with anything but schoolwork. Over the course of this first book, Ferris exhibits her own love of monsters, along with an affinity for classic detective stories, tender coming-of-age narratives, and fine art. And all of these motifs frame an exploration of real-life monsters, from Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust, through the racially-charged tumult of Chicago in the 60’s, and into the presently unraveling murder mystery.
Jason on the Camino – Jason
Jason’s latest graphic novel, unambiguously titled Jason on the Camino, is without a doubt the most personal and, consequently, touching book in the Norwegian cartoonist’s body of work. It’s an autobiographical account of a pilgrimage hike he embarked upon from the French side of the Pyrenees, across northern Spain, to the holy site of Santiago de Compostela. Jason walked the Camino a few years ago, to mark his fiftieth birthday, and the 32-day trek is chronicled here with the master storyteller’s signature mix of deadpan humor, understated emotion, and anthropomorphic characters.
Jason (“John from Norway”) acknowledges that, while every person has his or her own reasons for walking the Camino, other than marking a significant chapter of his life, he’s not entirely sure what his own motivation is. But in those first few pages we get a clear picture of a man who, despite a certain modicum of social anxiety, is prepared to fully immerse himself in an experience rich in all the quiet subtleties of life and, more importantly, one that promises to be enhanced by interacting with other people. One may walk the Camino alone, but the true nature of any pilgrimage is the fact that one person becomes part of many, across time and space, a connection among people from around the globe and throughout the centuries.
It’s charming to see Jason take conscious steps towards overcoming his unease, watching his imagination convert interactions and conversations into progressively more playful daydreams. As his disquiet diminishes, the profundity of his physical journey becomes clearer. As the days and pages tick by, Jason appreciates his surroundings more, and every little detail becomes more meaningful. From a tear on the cheek of a fellow traveler remembering her father, to the taste of a morning latte, or the late-night flashlit search through wet cobblestone streets for a goddam yellow arrow or scallop symbol to get back on the path, every moment contributes to the self-discovery. Ultimately, Jason’s journey reminds us about everything that is good, glorious, and life-affirming about travel. We meet other people; we learn about ourselves. We connect to the greater human experience. Right now, I think all of us could use a little more of that.
Silver Surfer – Dan Slott & Michael Allred
The adventures of Norrin Radd and Dawn Greenwood, from the salty coast of New England to unexplored new regions of the galaxy, have reminded us how fun comics can be. We were promised “everywhere and anywhere,” and from one corner of the cosmos to another, the quest to uncover the human soul of the Surfer has been even more rewarding than we could have hoped.
Silver Surfer debuted in the pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four in 1966, the same year Star Trek premiered on NBC. The connection hasn’t been lost on me, as these recent volumes of Surfer have captured so much of what I love about that original Trek series. It’s campy and colorful, but nonetheless full of mystery and wonder. And this character lends himself so perfectly to that type of story: he’s admittedly a goofy concept, all plated in chrome and riding a surfboard across space, but there might not be another superhero in comics who takes himself, or his purpose, so seriously. In the issue #9, a standalone tale of cosmic intrigue, Surfer and Dawn encounter a planet of people who don’t poo. Freaking silly, but fun! And it’s a bonafide mystery, tucked inside the ongoing quest to kindle the light of humanity within the once lonely last son of Zenn-La.
One of the reasons this book has been so good is that it has been allowed to exist within its own cosmic universe, tied into the greater Marvel canon, but free of the tethers and tie-in mandates of any of the recent “events,” like Civil War II or IvX. Having said that, issue #10 reminds us that we are still playing in the Marvel sandbox: the Surfer meets his old master, who has been transformed, in the recent pages of Ultimates², into Galactus Lightbringer. This, too, is a wonderful standalone story that pays homage to the fantastic Lee/Kirby/Ditko sci-fi legacy, while moving forward the Dawn & Norrin storyline that has been building for years.
Boundless – Jillian Tamaki
Drawn & Quarterly
Canadian cartoonist Jillian Tamaki is an Eisner winner herself, bringing home an award last year for SuperMutant Magic Academy, but Boundless, her collection of short stories released last month, is now on the much more impressive shortlist of some of my favorite things ever. While a good portion of this material has already appeared in various anthologies – both print and online – a bookshelf collection allows for a greater appreciation of the various styles, rhythms, and moods Tamaki commands in the pages of her stories.
The best among these is the story of Jenny, whose voyeuristic stalking of her mirror self’s Facebook page is a layered, thought-provoking look at the way we perceive others and wish to be perceived in return.