by Kevin Czap
While we’re talking about lists, perhaps it’s time to throw my own hat in this ring.
I had a really fabulous year in 2011, thanks in no small part to the amazing comics landscape I found myself increasingly mired in. It can be exhausting trying to keep up, to the point where it’s hard to breathe. That’s when you remind yourself that you don’t need to keep up with anything, this is your damn life and whatever happens in it is all she wrote. As I’ve said a few times before in this column, I’d like to champion the creation of one’s own personal canons, one’s own list of definitive works and so forth. So, in that spirit, here is a list of the works released in the past 12 months that made a significant impression on me.
I read a lot of great material, pretty much all of it I’ve mentioned in some capacity in my con reports or reviews. There were a few, though, that made my hat launch straight up off of my head and spin several times in a counterclockwise direction (don’t even get me started on what my bowtie was doing). In no particular order:
“With Love, from Statler and Waldorf and Jess”
— Jess Wheelock
Ok, up front: this first appeared in an anthology that I co-edited and sell. Jess is also a dear friend of mine. She’s also one of my favorite artists, one of the smartest people I know, and I couldn’t be more excited about her forays into comics. This strip is a follow up to one she did for the first issue of PUPPYTEETH which introduces a cartoon Jess to the famed Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf. The two geezers get philosophical as they share with Jess their advice on humor and survival. This first one, simply titled “Statler and Waldorf and Jess,” represents the first steps into exploring this concept, combining Jess’ inner musings with her lovingly distorted drawing and screen captures of Muppet silliness.
The second installment, which I’m focusing on here, finds her getting the hang of this formula and when Jess figures something out, she really makes it sing. Again she brings out Statler and Waldorf and Jess to discuss that hairiest of topics — love. We have a number of subtle additions to the set up here that are really pretty amazing. Most apparent is the use of full color, relegated to the panels of Muppet stills. The color and sharpness of the photographs creates a nice counterpoint to the black and white line drawings that the three hecklers remain. The screen captures are more related to the story this time around as well, focusing on bits skewering romance. In fact, the choice of panel photos allows the Muppets portrayed to assume characters in the comic, as it’s implied that the foxy gentleman here represents Statler in his youth.
The heart of the comic lies in the parable on love that Jess shares with us. The way that she tells it — switching narration between Waldorf, an omniscient sort of narrator that we understand to be Jess the writer, and the silent cartoon Jess who communicates with hand written signs — is suited beautifully to telling this kind of story. It’s funny, cute, poignant and wise. As I mentioned above, this is in PUPPYTEETH issue 2, but lest you think I’m trying to get your money in some underhanded manner, I’ll let you know you can read this comic in its entirety for free on Jess’ website.
“Eat or Be Meatball”
— Liz Suburbia
You guys are hip to Liz Suburbia by now, right? Those who read my haul report for SPX 2011 might remember me squawking about this comic. I was and continue to be floored by it, so yeah, it’s on this list. Here’s a bit of what I said about it at the time: “‘Eat or Be Meatball’ lays out the premise in a flash, Liz and her husband have been convicted of an unforgivable crime and are sentenced to relive their lives from the start. Before we really know what’s happening, we find ourselves back in the late 1980s with Baby Liz, fellow prisoners along with Adult Liz acting as the disembodied narrator. It’s a lot like the final scene of Being John Malkovich, where John Cusack is trapped forever behind the eyes of a child. Liz, however, has direct agency over her reverted state, but in order to not arouse suspicion, she’s helpless in reconnecting with the love of her life. And so she needs to wait, reliving the painful teenage years of an army brat all over again. Everything here is beautiful, and she really is pushing her talents far beyond we’ve ever seen before from her.”
Reading through it again, wow, it’s such an emotional force (I’m willing to accept accusations that I’m some emo baby or whatever). The cover alone can make you take a step back. Since reading it in September, I’m pretty sure I’ve pushed this one on every comics reader I’ve come in contact with. I think if you email Liz you can find a way to get one of these for yourself, or if you see me at a show sometime, I’m bound to have some copies to peddle. Really exciting stuff.
Open Country #1
— Michael DeForge
One of those comics that just hits you with the weight of it all. Struck me as being an excellent combination of subject matter, style and form. I think DeForge is mining really deep territory with this one, abandoning the more horrific tropes he’s worked with in the recent past and focusing more on the body. Like with Liz Suburbia’s “Eat or Be Meatball,” Open Country a great combo of first-rate drawing and an engaging premise. I keep thinking of it as speculative fiction that comes from an honest place. The body has long been subject and material for modern artists, it is all too plausible that, were astral projection physically possible, this is exactly how it would look as an art form. But as fascinating as the these larger philisophical/political implications are, DeForge also nails the personal characterizations of the young, insecure protagonists.
Here’s what I’ve said about this in this recent past: “I continue to have a very strong reaction to this series – it’s depiction of young artist types strikes really close to home and I can’t help but feel a deep fondness for them. More importantly though, I’m really intrigued by the ideas DeForge is putting forward about our relation to the body. By giving these characters the task of visually reconstructing their bodies, he gives us insight into whatever existential crises these kids might be going through. By placing it all within the context of art, DeForge puts a political spin on the ball, in my opinion (even if the artists in the comic are as far as we can tell fairly apolitical). Quite excited to follow this one forward, if only to see how the psychic avatar portion resolves itself.”
“That Night in June”
— Emily Carroll
I wrote in-depth about this here. Really a stand out work this year, and a shame that it might be lost to the sands of time. It’s perhaps fitting, given the ephemeral nature of the nature. It’s also hard seeing this mass-produced, and printing them all together would be like removing a leg. This is one of the best works that Carroll has done, and that alone secures it a place on anyone’s “Best Of…” list.
I Will Bite You and Other Stories
— Joseph Lambert
I’ve shown a lot of love for Joe Lambert‘s work and this book in particular here on the Cube. Reading this was definitely one of the comics highlights of my year, so it’s inclusion is a no brainer. Particularly the short “Too Far,” Lambert’s work collected here flipped some kind of switch in my head, solidifying and adding depth to the ways I think about making comics.
— Andrew Hussie, et al
The appearance of Andrew Hussie‘s ongoing epic here shouldn’t be a surprise, as I’ve been shouting about the significance of Homestuck for some time now. In fact, even though the comic began in April of 2009, I don’t think I started to read it until the very beginning of 2011. Personal significance aside, 2011 was an amazing year for Homestuck – beginning with Jade finally prototyping her sprite to devastating results (this will mean nothing to you if you haven’t read). More generally, we saw a whole lot of ground get covered, God tiers popped up all over the place, several of the more prominent figures concluded major character arcs, games were changed left and right, jaws were dropped, so many people dressed up as their favorite character, the ultimate villain of the series was revealed, etc. etc. By the end of the year, Hussie put a close to the previous phase of what the comic had been and ushered his devoted readers into the endgame.
For those who give over to Homestuck, it is one of the most engaging and riveting narratives being told today, constructed by someone with the mind of a chess master. It’s funny (really funny if you share this particular sense of humor), surprising, moving and the twists are all maddeningly obvious only in hindsight. On top of everything, I believe Hussie continues to stride through uncharted territory with his use of the web as a publishing format. I’ll direct you again to the post I did on Homestuck‘s summer intermission, which baited and overwhelmed our expectations time and time again. It’s also worth noting the astonishing fan community which continues to support this entirely independent effort. One can’t help but admire the insane discipline it takes for Andrew to update this beast several times a day on a near-daily basis. At the same time, it’s hard to envy his being faced with overblown fan outrage regardless of what story decision he makes.
But that’s sort of what it’s like on the internet, the negatives are magnified to the detriment of the positives. It feels at times that the fan culture surrounding this comic tends to overshadow this work itself, obscuring the brilliant aspects from would-be readers who are turned off by the appearances that it’s another one of those “animes.” Don’t front, I know you love Game of Thrones, Gilmore Girls, Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock — there’s no reason you should think you’re better than Homestuck. It’s still a ways off from being finished, and I won’t be able entirely to gauge my thoughts on the whole, but what we’ve seen so far, especially in 2011, is really head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
— Jason Overby
I’ve slowly been coming around to Jason Overby through the past year, to the point where now I consider him one of my favorite artists. His groundbreaking comic “2101” was a huge part of this warming. A true visual poem, the content of “2101” is accessed through the experience of reading it and can’t be summed up easily. I can try to maintain a detatched tone while describing this comic, but what’s the point? When I think about what Overby’s done here — a visually brutal assemblage-photo comic — I get so excited about the possibilities of the medium. Cobbled together out of ripped up comics, paper towel, tape, acetate, stamp letters, his own body and various other materials, “2101” breaks away from the traditionally flat plane of comics. Even while the surfaces are marked with a continuing narrative text about a self-described organic machine reflecting on his wife and their offspring (in the past tense), the shape, shadow and texture of the photographed objects forms a visceral meaning. This is comics, it’s words and pictures, taken to place that is largely uninhabited for whatever reason. This is dense, beautiful work that asks more of the reader than cartooned images tend to. To engage with it is to be rewarded with a richer idea of what this whole comics thing is about, I believe. This is work that stays with you, formulates in your brain like a chemical. Comics that doesn’t shy away from embracing its nature as art and the histories such a designation carries with it.
“Barack Hussein Obama”
— Steve Weissman
Over the year, I kept returning to this comic for its sheer audacity (pun intended). Hilarious as all get out, beautifully constructed and refreshingly surreal. Where’s Steve Weissman’s Nobel Peace Prize? Read more of my thoughts here.
I’d like to also give shout outs to Secret Acres, Koyama Press and Adhouse Books, a kind of holy trinity in boutique publishing who really helped to transform the landscape of comics this past year. Also on the rise is Blank Slate Books in the UK. And really, big ups to Box Brown and Retrofit Comics, am I right? What a fantastic achievement there. Sparkplug and Dylan Williams, where would we all be without you, in some way or another. And of course, the self-publishers, shine on.