The Arbiters of Taste 2008

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By Henry Sørensen, T. Thorhauge & Matthias Wivel
Right, so here were are again with our selection of the best comics of last year. It’s taken a while but we hope you find it useful.

Much of what we said about the year in comics 2007 when we did this last year applies equally to 2008. It was another great year in comics in what must be described as an ongoing string of such years. Recession or not, comics are alive and doing well. We’ll have to see how it manages the lean times that are surely ahead. While the industry is already taking hits on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Japan, where it has seen a slow, but steady decline over the last few years, and while especially comic strips are going through a phase of redefinition through newspaper death and digital translocation, the comics medium as an art form seems like it’s going to do just fine. If nothing else, the comics on our list provide ample grounds for optimism on that count, we should think.

As usual, lots of great comics fell by the wayside in this selection, so please be advised of its fallibility and consult other recommendations of the year in comics 2008. And, well, enjoy!

COMIC OF THE YEAR
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Emmanuel Guibert — La Guerre d’Alan vol. 3 / Alan’s War

Alan Cope remembers delivering the morning papers carrying the headlines of the bombing of Pearl Harbour as vividly as he remembers pretty much everything else. Like being drafted shortly thereafter, for example, or the military training that followed at Fort Knox, leading up to the final embarkation for war-torn Europe, which instilled in him a kind of pragmatic fatalism: “I was NOT afraid during the war. I had decided once and for all that whatever was meant to happen, would happen.”

On the surface of things, nothing much really does happen. Alan’s unit sees very little action, and less than halfway through this book of reminiscences, World War II has pretty much come to an end. Ultimately, this is not so much a story about war, as it is the story of a man who just happened to live through one.

Alan’s War is the result of the chance encounter between French artist Emmanuel Guibert and American WWII veteran Alan Cope and the numerous interviews that followed. In the book, Cope’s first person narration is presented in a straightforward manner, seemingly unedited (or at least so Guibert would have us believe), with a fair share of digressions and even a few memory lapses. It’s a nice trick and a wise choice on Guibert’s part, since it makes for at least half of what turns the book into such an intimate reading experience.

There are no tall tales here, only clear-eyed recollections of every day life — oftentimes bordering on the pedestrian, but always devoid of sentimentality. This book is not a string of highlights, it is a remembrance of things past, and the narrator evokes the exhaustive experience of driving a tank for three uneventful days with the same clarity — and endows it with the same necessity — as the emotional turmoil that ensues after having walked a gypsy girl home through the forest one night.

Alan’s War is an arresting portrait of a man coming into his own and finding out what is important to him, even though it might go against everything he thought he knew. In the final stages of war, Cope embraces Christianity, only to renounce it later on. Going back to the US, he is estranged by the opulence and decadence of 1950s Hollywood after having witnessed bombed out Europe, and finally chooses to return to the latter, basically leaving behind everything the army and America taught him.

Guibert reinforces this journey masterfully in his economical yet lush illustrations, moving swiftly back and forth between the sparse, matter-of-factly descriptions of military training with all the pared down effectiveness of an instructional pamphlet, through luscious depictions rich on local detail of the European grounds of battle, before finally arriving at the voluptuous full colour, almost Eden-like portrayal of the veteran’s final resting place.

Unfortunately, readers of the otherwise admirable English translation are being robbed of the full measure of this rather central piece of visual information, since American publishers at First Second, rather inexplicably, have chosen to discard the delicate sepia-tones of the original French edition and settled for a far blander all b/w greyscale printing. Of course, putting out an almost 400-pages long French graphic novel on the American market is a bit of a gamble that advocates all kinds of economic caution, but surely one could have arrived at a better solution than this?

– HS

Amazon listing American publisher

THE LIST OF TEN
fleshblood.jpgR. Crumb — “Flesh and Blood Comix”

Every once in a while, old man Crumb drops a gem on us. A reminder who is still boss. Such is “Flesh and Blood Comix” — published in the 45th issue of the free arts newspaper Point d’Ironie — which sees the master in top form.

In passages, the strip harks back to his late sixties “psychedelic” phase, displaying a similar penchant for the inventive graphic representation of inner states and drawn in his signature hypertextured, organic pen line — loaded with both love and anxiety. This he combines with the kind of presentational illustrations he has been producing increasingly for the last decade and a half or so, as well as with attractive use of large hand-lettered text passages, to form a reflexive statement on life, an existential “YAWLP!”

Although leavened with the usual, neurotic self-irony and equal opportunity deprecation, there is no doubt that Crumb — as always — is serious. The concerns expressed are recognisable to all and they are presented with the honesty for which he is known and the wisdom into which he has grown.

– TT & MW

R. Crumb

explainers_t.jpgJules Feiffer — Explainers
After half a century, Jules Feiffer’s classic Village Voice strips read at once as a succinct period portrait and an eloquent portrayal of everyday human affairs at any time. Eschewing recurrent characters (almost) entirely, it holds up a mirror to the urban professional elites of the postwar boom, simultaneously emboldened and unnerved by their success, and haunted by the spectre of the Cold War.

His nervous line evokes well both the specific anxieties of the time, and the more general ones of simply being alive, with empathy and humour, while his unadorned, precise language captures with precision the way we continue to verbalise these problems to each other and ourselves, most of the time without making much sense. Revelatory and funny human white noise.

This cocktail became the gold standard for comics trading in social satire. Without Feiffer, there would be no Trudeau, no Bretécher, no Lauzier. And although his is still a cartoon world, populated by archetypes, he pre-empted much of the psychological naturalism that only today is finding its way into comics. And he manages the balancing act of rendering these complexities in strip form better than most. Pessimistic but never cynical, Feiffer’s voice is reluctantly and stirringly compassionate.

– MW

Jules Feiffer Publisher

operation_mort_t.jpgShigeru Mizuki — Opération Mort
The War has been a constant in the work of Japanese national treasure Mizuki Shigeru, and he has confronted it directly a number of times throughout his career. The most sustained and intense of these, Soin Gyokusai Seyo (“To the Last Man”) is the largely autobiographical story of a Second World War suicide mission on a tropic island somewhere in the Pacific, from the perspective of someone who lived it to tell the tale.

The build is measured. Lived anecdotes are related — the day-to-day antics of soldiers trapped in the middle of nowhere, awaiting a faceless enemy, provide profane hilarity in a story of looming threat, and then inevitably but suddenly give way to disaster. The callous and incompetent war-time policies of Imperial Japan, sending entire companies to death for no other reason than national pride, are laid bare in the author’s characteristically muted, matter-of-fact tone, leaving the reader to reflect.

The storytelling, as usual for Mizuki, is choppy and at times outright confusing, but it is carried by an energising sense of urgency. Similarly, the images themselves strain the limits of comics congruity, harshly juxtaposing doughy, pliant personages with hyper-rendered landscapes, taking to a dissonant extreme the common practice in comics of immersing cartoons in naturalistic environments. But this is actually remarkably effective, foregrounding as it does the characters as projections of our imagination, as human ideas.

And when the end comes, it is grim.

– MW

Publisher Amazon listing The Metabunker on Mizuki’s Nononbâ

chasseur.jpgMoebius — Chasseur Déprime
While the Jean Giraud aspect of his creative personality has been dominant for the last decade and a half, Moebius has been on the wane, with very little but mediocre retreads of old material to his pseudonym. A few years ago, Giraud finished the manneristically elaborate and irreverently playful anti-western he had been telling in the Blueberry series, however, and now — amazingly — Moebius seems, once again, to be ascendant.

With this book, apparently the first in a series, he is back on the property that cracked open the maggot brain of classic genre comics back in the 70s — The Hermetic Garage and its erstwhile creator Major Grubert. His earlier returns to the Garage were bland at best, and it would seem to be a recipe for despondency to pick it up again this late in the game. But no. It appears the last few years of work on the dazzlingly perambulatory sketchbook series Inside Moebius has stoked long dormant areas of his creative imagination, endowing the Garage with genuine presence again.

As always, the Moebius magic is woven in drawing, and it truly has been a great while since he touched the kind of nerve he does here. He mixes soothingly cool runnings with hyperscratchy texturing, conjuring up inner landscapes haunted by the Arizona badlands of too many cowboy comics and ignited by the nested acid flashback that keeps on giving.

In a sense, this is more of the same, but his comics have always — appropriately — folded back upon themselves. The Garage was ever an engine for creative self-analysis, and after years in the desert, Moebius, older and wiser, has once again donned his pith helmet, this time to probe the fault lines of old age.

– MW

Jean Giraud Moebius Amazon listing

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Gary Panter — Gary Panter
Gary Panter has changed the way we make and think about comics. Merging the subversive expansion of the form by the undergrounds with a high art-sensibility, he has harnessed the pop roots of the medium with genuine enthusiasm to insert them definitively in a postmodern context. Simultaneously, as a painter, performer, musician, sculptor and all-round creativo, he became — and remains — one of the bona fide lifegivers in postpop art, earnestly embracing comics, the cartoon, and the commercial detritus of the contemporary world as his raw matter of meaning.

This lovingly designed, lucidly presented monograph was long overdue. Focusing primarily on Panter’s paintings and his sketchbooks, each given their separate volume, it provides an intoxicating overview of a creative life spanning more than four decades, with ample room for digressions into his other artistic activities such as cartooning, architectural maquettes and light shows. Judiciously tempered with largely excellent short essays, an illuminating interview, and a both informative and revealing autobiographical sketch, it does an admirable job of presenting the artist from a number of different viewpoints, making life and art cohere.

But most importantly, it is a generous, sprawling stash of visual ideas, lent form by an incredibly imaginative artist, whose sensibility recognises undercurrents of fear and anxiety, even anger, and at the same time never fails to see things with an eye of giddy wonder.

– MW

Gary Panter Publisher Rackham: Interview with Panter review of Jimbo’s Inferno (in Danish)

tricheur_t.jpgFlorent Ruppert & Jerôme Mulot — Le Tricheur
With Le Tricheur, the French duo Ruppert/Mulot has crafted an intricate genre twister, centred around three character duets interacting in a deviously and ultimately crushingly determined plot. Heist procedural, murder scheme, and romantic alienation rest babushka style within the framework of a set of police interrogations, to gradually reveal the seething jealousies, petty intrigue and failure to communicate that so predictably steer the protagonists along. Mitigating this bleak scenario is a subtly evoked and genuinely touching undertone to certain of the characters’ motivations, as well as the narrative intelligence and inventiveness the creators bring to the table.

While the ending is perhaps slightly too facile, the smartly orchestrated storytelling ensures a thrilling ride. Equally impressive are the clever alternations between arrested, “string theory” dialogue scenes in the story’s ‘present’, and tightly sequential, moment-to-moment pantomime ‘analyses’ of individual scenes of action in the flashbacks, as well as the chilling use of paintings-within-the-comic in the same that foreshadow the events as they are (or rather were) about to happen — a device so deliciously absurd as to recall the murder set-up employed by Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Ruppert and Mulot may still have some way to go in terms of the emotional resonance of their stories, but the bravura effort of releasing this year not only Le Tricheur, but also the cynically humorous haunted house masquerade Sol Carrelus and the delirious jam comic Maison close, make them one of the essential emerging talents this year.

– MW

Ruppert/Mulot Amazon listing the Bunker on Maison close

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Joe Sacco — “Chechen War, Chechen Women”
This piece was published in I Live Here, Mia Kirshner’s admirable and at times powerful, but also heavy-handed and unduly precious collective documentary on the Damned of the Earth. Sacco’s strip is a reportage on internally displaced people (exclusively women, as the title indicates) from the war in Chechnya, based on interviews with people living in and around a refugee camp in Ingushetia, close to the Chechen border.

The presentation is clear and unadorned, and impeccably orchestrated — Sacco’s eye for the telling situation, the revelatory line, the poetic moment, is better than ever. Most remarkable, however, is the development he shows as a draughtsman — never a natural, he has always made the best of his skills, and here achieves greater subtlety of facial expression and gesture than ever, as well as a few moments of genuine, understated beauty.

Most of all, however, it is his sharp instincts and strong moral conviction that carry the work. His look both at the history and current conditions in the region is unflinching and at times almost crushingly stark. Yet, it is held aloft by a palpable sense of indignation at the injustices suffered by people at the hands of the Russians and their disgraceful policies in the Caucasus, as well as — and more importantly — by the intimate, strongly empathetic portrait it draws of a handful of our fellow human beings.

– MW

Joe Sacco Excerpt at the New York Times Publisher

bottomless-belly-button_t.jpgDash Shaw — Bottomless Belly Button
Wow. You know. 24-year old artist. 720-page graphic novel. Topping almost every Best of 2008 list out there. It’s not like these three statements necessarily have to be mutually exclusive or anything, but when was the last time you saw them make up a meaningful equation? Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button delivers on all three accounts. It’s a story about family dynamics, about the ties that bind, but also about how each and every one of us in the end are left to our own devices. It is by no means perfect, but it is eminently readable.

When, after more than 40 years of marriage, the elderly Loony couple summon together their three grown-up children at their beach house to announce that they are getting a divorce, each member of the family is forced to reconsider their history, their mutual relationships and, ultimately, themselves. At opposite ends of this endeavour are the two sons Peter and Dennis, with their sister, Claire, hanging somewhere in between.

Peter, the youngest of the three, seems almost indifferent to the family rupture in so far as he is already in a state of dazed teenage disconnectedness, spending most of his time away from the house cooking up a romance of his own. His elder brother, Dennis, on the other hand, is in a state of anxious denial: he refuses to accept the break-up — clutching at straws, constantly looking for reasons where there are none to be found, he puts all his strength into piecing together something that is beyond repair, in order to avoid the fact that his own marriage might also be on the verge of collapse. Claire is alternating her time between being the voice of reason among the offspring and trying to reconnect with both their parents and her own daughter.

There’s a definite stagy quality to this book, to the extent that it portrays a small group of people in a number of confined settings, and having them come to terms with a crisis in each their own way within a limited time frame in a classic three-part structure. All the while rusty keys, enigmatic old messages written in code, secret peepholes and hidden tunnels all hint at strata that more often than not seem to exceed the grasp of both characters and reader. The psychological observations are clever, albeit a bit contrived at times, but Shaw’s ability to communicate that peculiar mix of familiarity and estrangement that reverberates from revisiting the places where you grew up is uncanny.

Less successful are some of the formal experiments Shaw undertakes. While the unfastening of the traditional page grid is sometimes used to great effect, some of his more novel additions to the grammar of comic book storytelling fall flat. By all accounts, the thought balloon seems indeed to be a thing of the past, but substituting it with the deliberate shortcut of implementing descriptive captions within the artwork itself, as a means of purveying sensory information, seems like an equally doomed effort.

There’s a fair chance that in ten years time, Shaw will look back on stuff like this and wonder what the hell he was thinking. The same goes for the heavy-handed symbolism of sand and water, the shoreline with its tidal waves crashing back and forth — even throwing in a lighthouse, Virginia Woolf-style — as a way of underscoring the push and pull of family relations, romantic connections and whatnot.

But slowly you realise that such narrative and formal extravagances — the carefully designed diagrammes and floor plans, or the Muybridgesque strip tease sequence — really don’t take anything away from the book. Actually, on the contrary, the things that you might hold against it are also part of what makes it so compelling. Sure, there is the Chekhov’s gun that is the asthma inhaler, and sure, there’s the presumably unintended predictability to the things that go pop halfway through the book, but in the end, you are willing to see past such things, because Bottomless Belly Button is such a rare example of a young artist pulling out all the stops — as a young artist should — creating a vibrant cacophony of formal experiments and engrossing storytelling.

– HS

Dash Shaw Publisher the Bunker on Shaw

acme-19_t.jpgChris Ware — ACME Novelty Library #19
Although this, the latest installment of the ongoing story of the life and times of “Rusty Brown” is a somewhat frustrating experience, its first half — a fiction within the fiction describing the colonisation of Mars by four people and two dogs — is some of the most inventive and powerful work from Ware’s hand in a while.

A take on old pulp short stories, or twist ending EC SF/Horror shockers, Ware lends it the grim poetry and rueful emotional depth of which he is such as master and delivers images of rare staying power, many of which are artfully centred around circular motifs. And as always he employs almost chimerically subtle storytelling devices to great effect — an homage to Charlie Brown’s Little Red-Haired Girl for example becomes as powerful a signifier of an unreliable narrator as any in recent memory.

Never mind that that the second half — narrating a short-lived and traumatic youthful fling in the life of its romantically harrowed protagonist — is disappointingly clicheed, employs rather heavy-handed symbolism, and falls short of the emotional resonance Ware is going for. The SF story itself is a small masterpiece.

– MW

Chris Ware Amazon listing Bunker review

travel_t.jpgYuichi Yokoyama — Travel
Yuichi Yokoyama arrived on American shores last year with the astonishing construction procedural New Engineering. Now three of his reed-like stock characters depart for a trip of a train ride, with the usual and hilarious automaton-like determination.

Yokoyama, discretely, is a showman. Each page brings tantalizing new discoveries, adapting the realities of sensory impression to the sophisticated set of impeccably stylized cartoon formulae he has developed, to evoke the wonder that peeks through the oppressive banality of post-industrial existence. A kind of hyper-impressionism hinting at life beyond the matrix.

Perhaps the most convincing exponent of the current interest in comics as kinesis — devoid of character and deceptive about emotion — his mastery of mise-en-scène, movement and timing makes for highly involving narration, while his technical assurance and subtle use of digital multiplication of forms in the architecture of his pages results in compelling cartoon magic.

– MW

Publisher

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
ke7_t.jpgKramers Ergot 7 (ed. Sammy Harkham, with Alvin Buenaventura)

This is by no means a bad book. In fact it is a rather compelling and affirming work, for its ambition, its dedication and its impeccable production value alone, but also for a number of great short strips by some of the best cartoonists working today.

Expectations were perhaps unreasonably high for this hubristic consummation of one of the seminal arts comics publishing projects of the last decade or so, but it also had a lot of factors working in its favour: a lineup of artists to die for, working in a — for them — unprecedented and potentially potent format, overseen by arguably the best anthology editor in comics and one of its best production men. Nevertheless, it is a disappointment.

One might nitpick the selection of contributors, but the real issue is that too many otherwise first-rate cartoonists have turned in subpar work, seemingly at a loss for what to do with the short-but-huge platform they were given. The result is a disjunctive rather than merely sprawling display of occasionally inspired — but more often less than — contemporary cartooning. A monument of sorts, but with a clay foundation.

– MW

Publisher full Bunker review

A note on the selection procedure: To be included on the list, a work must have been published in 2008. 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 2008 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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