The Arbiters of Taste 2007

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By Matthias Wivel, Henry Sørensen & T. Thorhauge
As per our Modus Operandi, we hereby bring you the Bunker’s selections of the best comics of 2007, more than four months into the new year, after everyone else has moved on. But we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t think our recommendations might be useful to comics readers out there. So here we go!

2007 was another great year for comics, although one could perhaps argue that the publication of new, truly groundbreaking or just plain amazing comics has been slightly on the wane the past couple of years, after the consummation of the work of so many great talents, both in North America and the Francophone countries, in the years around the turn of the new century. This may just be the way the chips have fallen, but could also be a symptom of the generational shift taking place within comics. The great works published by now established, middle-age cartoonists in previous years are a hard act to follow to say the least, but a generation of younger artists are increasingly delivering the goods and we can only hope they will continue to grow.

Additionally, 2007 was emphatically the year of the reprint, at least in North America. The market for high-quality editions collecting classic comics has been growing in recent years and 2007 saw the publication of a prodigious amount of new such projects. The signs of decline in the markets on both sides of the Atlantic and the upcoming recession may be signs that critical mass is being reached, but it is in any case wonderful that the market has become healthy enough to finally support renewed availability of a formidable but hitherto almost completely inaccessible cultural heritage.

Also, the translation of East Asian comics, particularly manga, has been on the rise, and we are finally seeing substantial publication of the classic and non-mainstream manga works that must necessarily be included in any serious assessment of the Japanese comics traditions, and clearly demonstrate its diversity and artistic achievement. First signs are showing that the manga wave is not without its limits. The market may soon level out and even decline as the repository of blockbusters from a Japanese market increasingly in want of new blood, are exhausted. There is no question, however, that the large-scale import of these comics have been a tremendous financial, cultural and artistic shot in the arm to Western comics culture.

Reaching a satisfying selection, paying the necessary dues to these different publication trends and balancing old and new are all difficult when there’s such a wealth of material to choose from. We have done our best, but a lot of great comics have fallen by the wayside. We therefore recommend the interested reader to google other best-of lists and generally stay attentive to all the wonderful things going on in comics these years.

COMIC OF THE YEAR
faire_semblant_t.jpgDominique Goblet: Faire semblant c’est mentir
Faire semblant c’est mentir is a both sensitive and harrowing piece of comics autobiography, revolving as it does around the pretense we all maintain in our relations with each other, and how it can become the cause of great hurt of the kind we carry with us through life. It is structured around its author’s relationships with her estranged father and troubled, dishonest boyfriend — who collaborated on the writing — and evokes the complexities of these relationships through terse, often intense and uncomfortable dialogue as well as silent, suggestive sequences, some of which border on the allegorical.

The art is beautifully rendered in a mixture of ballpoint, pencil, crayons, and oil and maintains a muted chromatic range complimentary of the subtle storytelling. Goblet fuses the graphic and the painterly to great effect, alternating between iconic shorthand and sensory evocation. Never didactic, she lets the reader fill in the blanks in this account of painful everyday relations. When she does choose to employ more overt writerly artifice, it is in the service of a shocking account of childhood trauma that seems entirely honest in emotional terms and comes to define the history of self-delusive pretense at the heart of the story.

Goblet’s second full-length comics story, Faire semblant ties into her first, the masterful impressionist set of recollections, Souvenir d’une journée parfaite (2002), and consolidates her as a rare, sensitive talent in comics and one of its few truly groundbreaking practitioners today.

Website Amazon results

– MW

THE LIST OF TEN
gentilgarcon_t.jpgShinichi Abe: Un Gentil garcon
Following as he did in the footsteps of the great watakushi-mangaka (ie. ‘me-comics’ artist) Yoshiharu Tsuge, Abe had some pretty damn big shoes to fill. In his best work, such as the 1970s short stories (+ one from the 1990s) collected especially for this anthology, he manages to marry his sensei’s subtle yet powerful evocation of emotional states to a more self-assertive, rebellious artistic sensibility that is uniquely his. Where Tsuge is introspective and self-doubting, there is more of a proud, almost defiant feel to Abe’s similarly intense self-examination by proxy of his characters.

These are stories about the things that go unsaid in close relationships, between friends, family, lovers. Attentive to quotidian detail, to sensual experience, to simple dialogue, Abe evocatively suggests the greater story of human relations through deceptively simple set pieces. A story that would be lesser were it to be explicitly articulated. A masterful achievement of understated emotional realism.

Publisher Amazon results

– MW

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Frank King: Sundays with Walt and Skeezix
Calling this a coffee table book wouldn’t do it justice. It’s more like a dinner table book. Measuring an incredible 22 x 16 inches, Sundays with Walt and Skeezix gives today’s readers an unprecedented opportunity to experience the Sunday instalments of Frank O. King’s classic strip Gasoline Alley the way they first appeared to the public in the newspapers of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. As was the case with publisher Peter Maresca’s previous book, a collection of So Many Splendid Sundays’ worth of Little Nemo-material, every effort has been made to meet the standards of the original publication. And like its predecessor, Sundays with Walt and Skeezix succeeds beyond all expectations.

Speaking of Little Nemo, a surprisingly large number of these Sunday pages owe more than a little to Winsor McCay’s seminal Slumberland-surveys. Readers of the Gasoline Alley-dailies are of course familiar with the witty realism King displays in his unparalleled depiction of everyday life in early Urban America, but such trifles are most often given the backseat in the Sunday pages. Especially during the holidays Walt and Skeezix find themselves in less than ordinary surroundings, whether taken captive by Native Americans during Thanksgiving or helping out Santa Claus at Christmas.

Most of the surreal goings-on can at first be contributed to Walt’s dozing off, but later, also, to Skeezix’s imagination, like when he’s taking a stroll down the Milky Way, or digging a hole all the way to China — with the panels turned upside down upon arrival. More than once, King challenges his readers’ preconceived notions of how spatial and temporal matters can be conveyed on a comic strip page. The dreamlike detours and formal experiments are decidedly Nemoesque, but where McCay’s scenarios take off and never look back, King’s are often rooted in everyday life and ordinary settings: an entire page is devoted to Skeezix marvelling at the many types of mushrooms surrounding him, when he is, in fact, looking at the water pipes, chimneys and skylights of his hometown.

Other Sundays find the couple taking a tour across America by way of their seven league boots, travelling the world via Walt’s collection of stamps, or wandering through Cézanne-like landscapes at the local museum, all the while decrying the representation of nature in modern art. We witness Walt and Skeezix running, crawling, climbing and, of course, driving, all over the page, mostly moving in the reading direction, as if sharing the reader’s curiosity as to what is going on in the next panel. There are even a few meta-stunts like Skeezix wondering what it would be like to be “made entirely out of paper”, and later, bending over a pond to catch his reflection, finding his speech balloon reflected.

But the pages that stick with you, of course, are the ones that most profoundly emit the warmth and love radiating between the bachelor Walt and his foundling, Skeezix. When the two are off to find that pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, or simply taking a stroll in the countryside, we are invited to share the “golden, lazy afternoons, days spent driving through the country or sauntering in the woods, times in which almost nothing is done but life is soaked up”, as Jeet Heer puts it in his beautifully written introduction.

Most of the Sunday pages indeed offer a break from the daily routine, as we watch the two townsmen reconnect with nature, with eyes wide open to the changing seasons, the colours and shapes of the leaves, the pastoral lucidity of a world that is all but gone. It’s the attention to the smallest of things, the things we might take for granted or not even notice anymore, but which we are forced to experience anew through the eyes of a child, that endows Sundays with Walt and Skeezix with a beauty and a gravity that is impossible to ignore. You really have to see it, to believe it.

Publisher

– HS

4thworld.jpg Jack Kirby: The 4th World Omnibus Edition
Finally. The King’s Magnum Opus as it was supposed to be, as it was always intended by the artist: The very grand, the very bold, and the very personal Fourth World of Jack Kirby, presented for the first time in all its magnificent — yet sadly unfinished — glory, in four hardbound and chronologically ordered volumes. As far as superhero comics go, this is the Rock of Ages.

Disregarded by readers and critics alike during its initial run as being too old-fashioned and not up to par with the works of contemporary hot shots like Neal Adams, The Fourth World has since gained the recognition and the reverence it so richly deserves. And these four fine volumes should cement the fact that Kirby was never stumbling along, trying to keep up. He was in fact — as always — way ahead of everyone.

Taken at face value, the rambling riots of the four interlocking series — the Houdini routines of Mister Miracle, the overwrought space opera of The New Gods, the admittedly outdated flower power melodrama of The Forever People, and the sometimes downright meaningless Silver Age-antics of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen — can be read as just that. But The Fourth World also tackles and transcends ordinary genre themes and conventions at every turn of the page.

Naturally, The Fourth World carries with it its share of shortcomings: the overall plotline is never fully realised (and, one wonders, would perhaps never have been, even if the series had not been aborted prematurely), it incorporates almost amateurish plot devices such as The Mother Box (a Freudian Deus ex Machina, if there ever was one), and modern day continuity buffs will be screaming for their moms. But one is willing — if not forced — to turn a blind eye to such trifles because of the sheer magnitude of Kirby’s vision.

The fear, the existential angst, the growing up in less than enviable surroundings, the sense of displacement in the world, the ambiguous feelings that arise in times of war: these are all themes that today’s graphic novelists are (or ought to be) struggling with, and The Fourth World encompasses all of them. The human condition is at once mythologized and laid bare through the wonderfully bizarre prism of one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th Century.

Every superlative you can think of was invented to describe Jack Kirby’s art. And it’s all here: More than three decades after its original inception, The Fourth World is still the grandest, meanest, silliest, profoundest monster alive at your local comic book store.

Publisher: vol. 1, 2, 3, 4

– HS

all_star_superman_1_t.jpgGrant Morrison & Frank Quitely, with Jamie Grant: All Star Superman Vol. 1
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman is not a rebooting of the Man of Steel-mythos in the traditional sense, insofar as it implies some knowledge of same on behalf of the reader. It’s more like a Great-Artists-Doing-Great-Stuff-With-Great-Characters-kind of thing.

Literally off to a flying start, All Star Superman finds both its protagonist and main antagonist facing imminent death: Lex Luthor is to be executed for his crimes against humanity, and Supes is diagnosed with a cellular disorder following a rescue mission to the sun. The sombre outset of the story, however, does not prevent Morrison and Quitely from having a lot of fun:

Silver Age-staples such as Lois Lane becoming Supergirl for a day and Jimmy Olsen acting as the only bulwark between Earth and an evil Superman on the rampage, are coupled with the unmistakable signature motifs of Grant Morrison: weird science-gadgets like a time telescope, a cosmic anvil for forging miniature suns, and the introduction of the newly discovered Underverse: a “basement level hidden beneath the known structure of the universe” where time itself takes on solid form. Oh, and Jimmy Olsen dressing up in women’s underwear, thrown in for good measure.

Morrison is obviously having a ball, and so is Frank Quitely, who has definitely grown as an artist. The page designs are marvellous, the sequential timing is impeccable, and the ability to catch and convey the facial expressions and gestures of his characters, which was always a prominent feature in Quitely’s art, has now come to full fruition. The pages are digitally inked and coloured by Jamie Grant, whose beautiful and congenial enhancements somehow enforce the delicacy and subtleness of the line work. Quitely may still be unable to meet his deadlines, but every issue so far has been well worth the wait.

Although rooted in a post-modern tradition, these stories have as little in common with the ironic distancing of the revisionist superhero comics of the 90s, as they do with the gritty, dead-serious post-Watchmen comics of the 80s. Morrison is fashioning an entirely different beast altogether. There is a deep-felt love and respect for the material in these stories, the author clearly knows every single character, knows what makes them tick, and what used to make them great. Highlights include a hilarious character study of Lex Luthor, and a touching Smallville-epilogue.

As always, Morrison is shelling out plot lines like there was no tomorrow. And one might fear that not all of them will be resolved when this 12 issue-run is over. But honestly, who cares? To tell you that this is the most fun Superman has been in years is really not saying a whole lot. But it’s also the understatement of the year. War and Peace it ain’t. Hell, it’s not even The Invisibles. But if pure, unadulterated fun is what you are looking for in comics, this one’s for you.

Publisher

– HS

the_end_t.jpgAnders Nilsen: The End
The End follows 2006′s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow — an intensely personal memorial to Nilsen’s fiancé, Cheryl Weaver, who succumbed to cancer in 2006, and to their life together. It is a more reflexive attempt at dealing with his loss, describing as it does, through both acutely concrete and rather abstracted sequences and situations, the state of bereavement.

It is perhaps Nilsen’s most successful foray into comics as a symbolic language. Concerned with conveying an emotional state rather than any kind of strict sequence, the storytelling is at times situational (describing him crying while going about the day’s activities), conversational (attempting to convey the sense of loss through impossible equations spoken by stick-figure characters), or metaphorical (depicting himself as an ever-expanding maze-like framework going nowhere). Strongly affecting and exhilaratingly original.

Website Blog Publisher The Bunker interview with Nilsen

– MW

tamara_drewe_t.jpgPosy Simmonds: Tamara Drewe
UK national treasure Posy Simmonds is back with her first long-form comic in almost a decade and proves she is still a master of the form. Just like the predecessor, Gemma Bowery (1999), Tamara Drewe derives its basic plot and theme from a classic of modern literature, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), and is told using a seamless combination of comics and prose.

Hardy’s rural setting is conserved, but updated to a retreat for writers in lovely Wessex, ideal for the meeting of city and country central to Hardy’s novel and, of course, for Simmonds own predilection for both realistically and metatextually exploring the Literary Life. A cast of writers populate this microcosm into which the glamorous title character enters, exuding irresistible mojo and inevitably bringing things to a head.

Simmonds masterfully captures the individual voices of her characters, whose inner life is revealed through ongoing diary entries, each acutely personalised through elegant yet naturalistic prose. Especially powerful, both as a plot device to further the theme and as living, breathing characters, are the two teenaged ‘chav’ girls who observe and interfere in the lives of the literati. The account of their bleak and modest small-town life is simultaneously compelling social commentary and affecting storytelling. It is through this broad approach to the description of life in the contemporary UK that Simmonds transcends what could otherwise easily have ended up as a rather literarily insular critique of manners, to fully-fledged social commentary, not to forget incisive slice-of-life.

Publisher

– MW

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Osamu Tezuka: Phoenix: Sun
“Sun” (1986-89) was the last story the “God of Comics” Tezuka managed to tell as part of his never-completed raifu waaku — life’s work — Hi-no tori, or Phoenix. While perhaps not as incontrovertible a masterpiece as earlier instalments such as “Hô-ô,” “Future” or “Resurrection,” it is one nonetheless. A majestic epic with a moving story of human community and individuality at its centre.

Accelerating the countdown-chronology that orders Phoenix as a whole, this epic simultaneously tells two parallel stories; one takes place in the 7th Century and one in the 21st. The first is about the immigrant Inugami, whose human face has been transformed into a wolf’s, and his struggle to maintain a peaceful life for himself and his community of aboriginal wolf-gods in the face of the Yamato Dynasty’s imposition of Buddhism as a national religion. The other deals with Suguru, a revolutionary fighting for the liberation of most of humanity, which has been forced underground by an oppressive elite worshipping the Firebird of the title. At one point, he is forced to wear a prisoner’s mask that looks conspicuously like a wolf’s head…

Needless to say the two stories converge, and the reader senses that Tezuka was getting closer to his own time and thus the end of his great cycle. It is our great loss that he never did, but he still left us one of the greatest comics works ever made, and “Sun” is the fitting finale that never was.

Website Publisher

– MW

topffer_complete_strips_t.jpgRodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips
In the works for several decades, this authoritative compilation of the comic strips of the Swiss comics pioneer and master Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) is not only a corrective to comics fans who may still think the medium was born in Hogan’s Alley, but simply a wonderful gift to lovers of great comics.

Töpffer’s comics have it all: humour divided evenly between the eloquent and the absurd, with hits of biting satire, and the fantastic and the mundane waltzing along effortlessly in the hands of a master cartoonist who was creating long-form comics and theorising on the poetics of cartooning at a time when most comic strips spent their often limited juice in short bursts of slapstick.

Overseen by Töpffer specialist and cartoon historian David Kunzle, the book collects Töpffer’s seven graphic novels: Mr. Jabot, Mr. Crépin, Mr. Vieuxbois, Mr. Pencil, Doctor Festus, The Story of Young Albert, and The Story of Mr. Cryptogame, as well as the incomplete Mr. Trictrac and other incomplete strips, cut sequences and story synopses. All of it finely translated into English and annotated by Kunzle, who has also written a monograph on Töpffer the cartoonist to go along with it. Not just a major piece of comics history revivified, but wonderful comics. Pure and simple.

Publisher Töpffer Chronology The Bunker’s Töpffer introduction

– MW

acme_datebook_2_t.jpgChris Ware: ACME Novelty Date Book Vol. 2
If the first volume of The ACME Novelty Datebook — a selection of ten years worth of Chris Ware’s sketchbook pages and journal entries — offered a rare glimpse into the day-to-day struggles of an artist coming into his own, this second volume (covering the years 1995-2002) finds Ware in full bloom and at the top of his game.

All of the usual trademark obsessions are here: journal entries about childhood, dreams, and descriptions of social shortcomings, aborted attempts at comic pages, fake ads, and amazingly congenial homages to the art of Schulz, Herriman, Bud Fisher and Frank King. Drawings of old Charlie Brown and Henry toys, production designs for “sickeningly cute Rusty Brown figurines”, some very vibrant renderings of dorks dressing up as superheroes, and, of course, the ubiquitous ragtime-musicians and instruments, most of which are executed in meticulous pen-and-ink in Ware’s self-proclaimed “thinking like a wood engraver” style.

The sketchbook pages are lavishly reproduced, and the over-all design of the book is flawless, with minute attention to the smallest details, as per usual. But first and foremost the ACME Novelty Datebooks are indispensable to anyone trying to fully grasp the phenomenon that is Chris Ware, because the sketchbook pages are overbrimming with what the artist’s finished work mostly seems to suppress: not only is Chris Ware a master designer, he’s also one hell of a draughtsman — right up there with the likes of R. Crumb.

But that’s just from the look of things, mind you. If Ware’s many interspersed scribbles and numerous memos to self are to be believed, he is still unable to look, see and draw. It’s the kind of quirky self-deprecation we have come to expect, if not love, from Ware. And of course, there is a certain amount of coquetry at play when an artist, who is generally heralded as the best thing since sliced bread, presents his newest book as having been put together in such a way as to “simulate the appearance of an ordered mind and established aesthetic directive”.

But statements such as these should not be confused with false modesty: they bear witness of an artist who is never at rest, but always at work, as the many sketches of buildings, interiors and cityscapes, people on trains, planes and in automobiles, will tell you. There is even a drawing of his wife having an MRI, for Chrissakes! The ACME Novelty Datebook, once again, lays bare the modus operandi of a comic book prodigy, unremittingly trying to refine his craft and make sense of the world around him through it.

Publisher

– HS

new_engineering_t.jpgYuichi Yokoyama: New Engineering
Yokoyama’s work is a pure expression of comics as kinesis, as progression through time. Charting movement and change with almost clinical precision and presenting its agents in a clearly stylized idiom, these are dispassionately formalist comics. Their delicious feeling for the absurd and strange sense of urgency, however, lend to the proceedings a compelling ambiance of import.

The complete makeover received by the landscape, turned as it is into “beautiful views” of astroturf-carpeted hills, homogenously planted with trunks of styrofoam evergreen and set in concrete, mirrors directly the rigorous fashioning of the Japanese landscape over the past decades, while the bento box presentation of the characters as single-minded automatons, done up in humanoid soup-and-ramen, reflect the surrealism of Japanese game shows and the hyper-modern society that spawned them.

“The operation is a success!”

Publisher

– MW

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
greffier_t.jpgJoann Sfar: Greffier
This had as much promise as one could reasonably hope for: one of France’s smartest and most versatile cartoonists taking on perhaps the biggest story in the history of cartooning, and beyond that one of the central socio-political issues of these early years of the century. Sfar was present during the trial launched by a conglomerate of Muslim organisations against French the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for having published the infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons and added some of their own to the mix, and he was reporting directly from the courtroom itself, in comics form!

As a feat of cartooning, the notebook is simply stunning. Sfar is an incredibly gifted draughtsman and he draws faster than his own shadow without ever loosing the essential accuracy making it work. As reportage aiming and claiming to present us with “the entirety of the debate” however, it is sadly inadequate. Not only is it heavily weighed in favour of the defendants, but Sfar’s bias prevents him from ever making the controversy come alive on the page.

He does not claim to be an unbiased observer, and nor should he, but even if one shares his opinion about the case – which the Bunker certainly does – his fawning attitude and skewered presentation mars what could have been an intelligently presented witness account. The end result is instead a frustratingly superficial presentation of a complex and contentious issue.

Publisher Full Bunker review

– MW

A note on the selection procedure: To be included on the list, a work must have been published in 2007. The comic of the year had to be a new release (not a reprint or collection of work previously published in its entirety). In selecting reprints and collections to include in the main list, we tried to focus on projects either new to 2007 or — to a lesser extent — notable for the particular quality of the material published that year.

Oh yeah, a note of explanation is probably needed with regards to our title: the Arbiters of Taste was the title of our year-in-review articles at the now-discontinued Danish comics site Rackham. Partly in assertion of critical responsibility and fallibility, partly as political commentary on the Danish government’s marginalisation of so-called “arbiters of taste”, we took upon us this sobriquet. Here are the Arbiters of Taste for 2003 and 2004.

Logo by T. Thorhauge.

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