Comics

Graphic Novels That ... What Was I Saying?

The cover of 'Beast'.
Image Comics

Sufferers of end-of-year-list fatigue: I feel you. I count myself among your number, in fact.

It's well into the new year, fer pity's sake. Isn't about time we quit looking back?

Yep; get that. As I sit here sifting through last year's books, comedian Maria Bamford's imitation of her impatient sister plays in my head on an endless loop: C'MON! LIVE IN THE NOW, ECKHART TOLLE!

It's my own fault: Last week's "Comics That Clung" post focused on monthly or ongoing titles and mini-series; I didn't leave myself room for those stand-alone, original graphic novels that I'd find myself thinking about for days and weeks after I read them.

(For that, if you missed last week's post, is the metric we're using, here: Indelibleness. That turns out to be a high bar to clear, when one's brain is entirely composed, as is mine, of Tempur-Pedic mattress foam: Few things leave a lasting impression.)

So, yes, incredibly subjective, and not meant as a definitive "Best Of 2009" list because of course I didn't read everything, and my son Chacun has gout, as the French say.

Or words to that effect.

But these are the books that, for a host of different reasons, managed to find an empty apartment in my long-term memory, and promptly took up residence.

After the jump: Books! Links! Lots of them!

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
I've read this book a lot, thought about it a lot, and pushed it on friends a lot. I love the way it plays with the comics format until it nearly breaks, takes serious risks that pay off, and still manages to tell a palpable, detailed, richly imagined story. That it will inspire imitators is a given; but how many will realize that this book's flashy formalist acrobatics are not, in the end, the point of the thing? That the mashups of disparate art styles that occur on every page are doing the good narrative work of showing us something important about the main character? I don't know. But I do know this: This is one book I'll still be thinking about in ten years.

Stitches by David Small
Grim but never depressing; deeply felt but unsentimental. As I've said before, this gorgeously drawn memoir of growing up and moving past the physical and emotional scars of youth - of rescuing oneself through art - really lingers in the memory. (No, it didn't win the National Book Award, but it was a contender, if that sort of thing matters to you.) The fact that it's written and drawn by an author known for Imogene's Antlers and other children's books just adds to its meta-cachet - it's like if Dr. Seuss had written This Boy's Life.

Red Snow by Susumu Katsumata
Don't call it manga - Katsumata was part of a school of creators who pioneered a form called (by the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi, about whom more below) gekiga, a term originally applied to more serious, personal comics to distinguish them from the funny/fantasy mainstream manga of the day. (Such distinctions have since faded.) Red Snow collects several Katusumata short stories set amid the Japanese countryside he remembered from boyhood. These are tough, unpretty, hardscrabble tales set in an incongruously beautiful natural setting.

Parker: The Hunter, by Darwyn Cooke
Technically, the title is Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, because Cooke adapted the first novel in Donald Westlake's Parker series (which Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark. Got all that?) The juicily noir trappings of the Parker novels fit neatly inside Cooke's artistic wheelhouse - you can't describe his style without busting out hyphenates like lantern-jawed, two-fisted and hard-boiled. But Cooke is, two-fisted hands down, one of the best visual storytellers in comics today (I mean, check out that wordless first chapter), and Parker is much, much more than a gimmicky, retro-pastiche adaptation. It's a true interpretation of the source material, and it's brilliant.

George Sprott, 1894-1975 by Seth
Although, when I mentioned it before, I made a lot of cheap jokes about the sheer size of this book, I hope I also made it clear that George Sprott is great comics. In this virtuoso visual mediation on the life of one seemingly ordinary, seemingly uncomplicated man, Seth exposes his title character's contradictions with empathy, even grace.

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man by Matt Kindt
Kindt's Super Spy was a Gordian knot of a novel that I loved reading, but for whatever reason (the art's cool, affectless quality, maybe?) I never connected with it emotionally. That's one reason I was so pleased to see him follow it up with 3 Story, which reintroduces some aspects of his earlier work (multimedia, multiple viewpoints, espionage). But this time Kindt permits himself to settle in and really look around the world he's created, to find its emotional center. Well, centers: the mother, wife and daughter of a boy who grows steadily beyond the scale of human cares. Kindt's sad, beautiful artwork freely admits the surreal without letting it make his storytelling go feathery at the edges.

You'll Never Know, A Graphic Memoir (Book 1: A Good and Decent Man) by C. Tyler
Cartoonist Carol Tyler depicts herself as the inquisitive adult daughter of a dour, taciturn World War II veteran whose wartime experience cast a shadow over the rest of his life - and the lives of his family. Determined to learn more, the author decides to create a comic that will resemble a photo album, and reproduce her (suddenly and mysteriously) voluble father's recollections as a series of drawn stills. Meanwhile, she must face off with her own separated husband and willful daughter. For the most part, Tyler lets her warm, fluid art draw the parellels between herself and her father, and hint at a darker story behind it all.

Beast by Marian Churchland
The fairy tale trappings get dispensed with early in Churchland's quiet, exquisitely rendered modern-day take on the Beauty and the Beast story. She's much more interested in expressing the state of mind of her protagonist, a young sculptor commissioned by a mysterious recluse. Don't expect action, romance or big revelations; instead, Beast builds its singularly intriguing mood and tension with a series of scenes that feel introspective but never insular. Churchland's pencils create a Beast of shadow and smoke who seems always about to dissolve into the surrounding darkness. It's an image that stays with you.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
Sacco, author of 1996's Palestine, follows up with more comics journalism that uses the medium in stunning, revelatory ways, as when he juxtaposes two nearly identical horrific events — separated from one another by 40 years — to illustrate the numbing constancy with which blood gets shed. I could say more about what makes this book so searingly good, but the LA Times' David L. Ulin is a smart type, and he's said it better than I could, so go read.

Dr. Grordbort Presents VICTORY: Scientific Adventure Violence for Young Men and Literate Women by Greg Broadmore
The most consistently funny foray into jingoistic chauvinistic xenophobic sociopathic propaganda since The Dark Knight Strikes Again. As I've said here before: It's a hoot.

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
This massive, years in the making, 800+ page autobiography is more than just a massive achievement, it's a rare glimpse into the birth of the manga movement, by one of its internationally recognized masters. Tatsumi meticulously records every detail of the writing life (triumphs, money woes, rivalries, etc.) and unsparingly recounts how his consuming desire served to cut him off from others. I'm on record for liking this book, but my appreciation deepened even further when I read . . .

ALEC: The Years Have Pants by Eddie Campbell
My full review of this book should appear on the NPR site sometime in the next week or so, but I'll just note here that — spoiler alert — it's pretty freaking wonderful. In its capacity as a monumental autobiographical tome chronicling the life and times of a comics artist, ALEC shares some DNA with Tatsumi's A Drifting Life. (In fact, the two books speak to one another in interesting ways.) But where Tatsumi is austere and chilly, Campbell's all easy charm and brio. True, there are nursed grudges, caddish behavior and (always, endlessly) worries over money, but Campbell's strength is his unflinching willingness to make fun of himself, and it goes a long way to making you love the guy. And the book.

Low Moon by Jason
The deadest of deadpan humor. Jason's cartoony, utterly affectless characters interact is ways that are horrible, hilarious and sad — often at the same time. I ate this up with a big ol' spoon, me.

Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao
Said it before, I'll say it again: This is an utterly charming, sweetly funny, high-wire achievement in setting a singular tone - and in the considerably harder job of maintaining said tone. Dreamlike but coherent, comic but never merely silly. Plus: No book I read last year made me miss New York City so keenly.

Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion by Billy Tucci
With a paintaking attention to detail and a photorealistic approach that never seems stiff or posed, Tucci tells the harrowing tale of World War II's "Lost Battalion" — the 275 members of the 141st Infantry Regiment/36th Infantry Division who, in October of 1944, held off a massive German force for a week in bitterly cold Vosges Mountains, while waiting for support from a combat team of Japanese-Americans. It's gripping, powerful stuff, and the fact that Tucci inserts some classic characters from DC's stable of war comics (Rock himself, The Haunted Tank, The Unknown Soldier, etc.) he manages to do so without ever trivializing the events he depicts. (If the Creature Commandos made a cameo, for example, I mercifully missed it.)

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.