Besides a pretty big interest in rap music, which should be obvious by my involvement with this website, I have a big passion for another quitessentially American form of pop culture: comic books. I can’t wait for Thursdays, when I hit my local comic book store for the fresh batch. Despite being an avid reader I gave up “floppies” years ago though, the cost-benefit analysis just isn’t in its favor and nicely designed books with an actual spine just look way better in your library than shoeboxes full of polybags do. So without further ado, here’s ten picks for comic books of the year from “waiting for the trade” kinda guy.
10. Prince of Cats (by Ron Wimberly)
Ron Wimberly is a name that should familiar to at least some rap aficionados, the artist working in animation on the Black Dynamite TV show also illustrated the excellent memoir Sentences, written by MF Grimm. This time however, he’s in the seat of the writer as well as the illustrator, but he based the material on the writing of another writer you might’ve heard of, a certain British guy by the name of William Shakespeare. Prince of Cats is an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, a story told and adapted countless times since its inception. So how does he keep it fresh? He tells it from the viewpoint of Tybalt, making him the main character with the story of his rival Romeo playing in the background. He fills in blanks in the storyline and sets it a stylized fictional ’70s version of New York where the warring families of Montague and Capulet are turned to sword-wielding gangs, fencing it out on the streets like urban ninjas. the dialogue is a fantastic mash of slang and Shakespearian-dialogue and the artwork has a highly distinct and energetic look, you almost almost expect the cast jumping off the page at every turn. The Warriors meets West-Side Story with a little Akira Kurosawa thrown into the mix. This B-side to William’s original is a tape that needs to be played, and it needs to be played LOUD.
9. Scalped vol. 10: Trail’s End (by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra)
Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra’s Native-American noir came to an end, and while it’s a sad sensation no longer seeing one of the greatest series of recent years pop up on the stands, the conclusion pays off perfectly. It’s the story of a disgruntled undercover FBI-agent, struggling with the heritage of his tribe, the assassination of his mother and his “selling out” of the tribe and their casino-running corrupt chief. The brilliance of Scalped is that all of the characters have an internal struggle between their darker and lighter impulses, have secrets they try to keep and good or bad (or in some cases, both) deeds they try to accomplish. Even the biggest douchebags and obvious “villains” (like the racist FBI captain overseeing the protagonist’s mission) are given believable motivations and backgrounds. The morally ambiguous characters are greatly reflected in the murky artwork of Guerra, which depicts the reservation in dark, gritty tones. This is like The Wired on an indian reservation, and the captivating finale tying together all storylines should ensure its status as a future classic.
8. Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score (by Darwyn Cooke)
Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker series continues with the thrid volume. Again, the protagonist turns out to be a bastard among a cast of bastards, but at least he’s a bastard with a plan, making him the most honorable among them. Parker is as ruthless as he is smart, but he’ll never make victims if it isn’t necessary, and he prefers to keep the jobs as simple as possible. When a job comes to him that’s basically a heist of an entire town, he wants to turn it down because of the possible complications initially. The prize is too big to pass up though, and they convince Parker to lead the team. One of them has ulterior motivations though, leading to a need for improvisation nobody was looking forward to. Darwyn Cooke depicts the period the stories are set in expertly and creates a palpable tension throughout the book, of which the design fits the content from the paper stock to the lettering. If Max Fleischer would’ve directed an animated version of a film like Double Indemnity, this is how it would look.
7. BPRD: Russia (by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Tyler Crook and Dave Stewart)
The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense spinned off into its own series out of the pages of Hellboy years ago, and after a series of short stories trying to find its tone at first, it has become one of the best series available since they shifted over to longer stories. It has now sprawled into an epic spanning the entire globe, with action scenes and horrors of enormous magnitude, but more importantly, much emotional heft. The stakes only get higher and higher, and unlike many other comics, changes to the status quo feel like they actually matter and the characters all deal with the drama and surreal events surrounding them in their own unique way. After the departure of much lauded regular series artist Guy Davis, the relatively unknown Tyler Crook picked up the job without losing a step. As the tapestry of stories BPRD weaves grows bigger and bigger, his name is bound to grow along with it.
6. The Underwater Welder (by Jeff Lemire)
The Underwater Welder tells a tale of a man who’s inexplicably drawn to keep on diving to a spot in the ocean he discovered during his job, where a relic of his youth long lost seems to have materialized. Don’t mistake it for overtly supernatural material though, the set-up rather leads to the tale of a man revisiting his past and the relationship with his deceased father as he’s on the cusp of becoming a father himself. It’s a melancholy book, beatifully illustrated and utilizing the medium to tell its a story in a way only a comic book can. The unorthodox page layouts and panel arrangements coupled with the graytones form a hauntingly hypnotic book that’ll stay with you for quite a while.
5. Fatale Vol.1 (by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips)
When the name Ed Brubaker or Sean Phillips is attached to a book, it’s something worth checking out. When the names Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are attached to a book though, it’s an instant-buy. There are some artist/writer teams who work so awesomely in tandem they can’t do anything but bring out the absolute best in each other. Brubaker and Phillips are such a team, and their best consistently sets the bar higher for everybody. Renowned for their fantastic crime, pulp and spy stories with a noir slant to it, the duo turned their lenses towards a different genre with Fatale. It starts fairly familiar, with what seems like a crime story centering around a femme fatale, but after a few chapters it gradually becomes clear “the dame” is much. much more than she seems, and demonic forces are at work. How old, or what exactly, and whether she’s a victim of sorts, a perpetrator, or a little of both, and if so, how the division between those two parts runs, all remains unclear for now. Brubaker has a plan though, and it’s a fantastic trip to watch him and Sean Phillips unravel it in what promises to be a varied and intricate story by two masters of the medium.
4. BLAST (by Manu Larcenet)
Manu Larcenet is a fantastic storyteller, whether he makes comics for kids or hits a more adult tone, his books are consistently good. It’s with his semi-autobiographical Ordinary Victories though that Larcenet delivered a modern classic full of depth, nuance and emotion worth a place on your bookshelf next to any piece of so-called “real” literature. BLAST contains that depth as well, but adds a creeping darkness and suspense to it that makes it an unnerving but superbly rewarding read. Told in hindsight by a morbidly obese man from the interrogation room of a police station, you know from the get-go that this man has committed a horrible, unspeakable act, although the reader has no clue what it is yet. Larcenet makes Polza Mancini, the man the detectives view as a monster, a sympathetic character though, and his decision to leave modern society and his place as a successful culinary writer in it, to deliberately wander the country-side as a homeless man in continued alcoholic delirium is surprisingly well-articulated and reasoned. Still, you know the story can only end in tragedy, and you almost feel guilty in feeling any affinity for the protagonist when he’s not denying or even apologizing for his horrific, unknown act. It looms as a shadow over the entire story, making the reader swing between revulsion, fascination and affinity for this strange man, building up suspense as it crawls to its monstrous conclusion. The third, 200-page volume in the story was published by the French comics giant Dargaud in August this year. So far, no books in the series have been translated in English though, and that’s a crying shame.
3. Spider-Men (by Brian Michael Bendis and Sarah Pichelli)
Years ago, Marvel vowed to never do any crossovers between their “regular” universe, started in the ’60s, and the “Ultimate” universe, which started at the turn of the century and told the stories of many familiar Marvel characters in a more realistic, modern setting, and loose from the decades of continuity behind them. It’s in this second continuity that Peter Parker passed away in battle after starring as the titular character in Ultimate Spider-Man for over ten years. With his heroic death though, he inspired a teenager named Miles Morales, who had recently gained different spider-like powers through a freak accident, to take up the vacant mantle of Spider-Man. Because, you know, seeing what Peter did, he realized that with great power, comes great responsibility. With Spidey’s 50th anniversary this year, Marvel wanted to do something special, and after 12 years, the crossover happened. The older, “regular” continuity Peter Parker accidentally landed up in the “Ultimate” universe and met Miles Morales. The smart thing Brian Bendis did was not make this a huge action-filled epic, but a small story full of personal moments. There are great action scenes of course, and the team-up between the two Spideys to defeat the villain of the story surely doesn’t dissapoint, but even though the Ultimates (the Ultimate universe version of the Avengers) show up, the book shines brightest in its character moments. Supporting characters aunt May and Gwen Stacy are given some closure and much-deserved emotional catharsis in meeting adult Peter Parker while Miles finally gets to talk to the guy that inspired him to pick this difficult path in his life. Bendis turns in some pitch-perfect dialogue to accomplish this, but star of the show is without a doubt the fantastic Sarah Pichelli. she can draw the pants off an action scene and sells the agility of the Spider-Men like few others, but it’s when the masks come off that she is virtually unrivaled. The many emotional nuances she puts into the faces of her characters show a range and storytelling ability putting her firmly into the upper class of comic book artists and make Spider-Men one of the best Spidey yarns in years.
2. Jerusalem – Chronicles From The Holy City (by Guy Delisle)
Guy Delisle is Canadian cartoonist who has worked in animation and is married to a woman who works for Doctors Without Borders. As such, he has lived all over the global for periods longer than most people visiting would do, if they’d be able to visit them at all. He has chronicled his time living in North-Korea, China and Burma in comic book form, and his latest book, which might be his best yet, depicts his life in Israel. As an outsider with no specific allegiance to any of the many factions laying claim to parts of the Holy City or the country of Israel, he writes and draws his vignettes and anecdotes without judging people, but doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier parts of Israeli society either. His deceptively simple drawing style contains not a single superfluous line but manages to convey his experiences superbly. Jerusalem – Chronicles From The Holy City is must-read material for anybody interested in religion, politics, history or simply great cartooning.
1. Tale Of Sand (a screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, adapted Ramón K. Pérez)
Jim Henson isn’t just the man behind The Muppets and Sesame Street, the puppeteer was also a director very much interested in experimental filming techniques and visual storytelling. Together with frequent collaborator Jerry Juhl he had written a script for strange, hallucinatory film playing out in an unnamed desert that, like a dream, contained both a modern town with lively jazz parties, an Arabian oasis where sheiks go to war using live ammunition until it’s suddenly revealed to be a movie set and a town in the old west. Through these various desert settings goes our viewpoint-character, at a breakneck pace, as he is being hunted by an unknown, lone gunman, for reasons unknown. Alas, the script was never filmed, but it was found in a vault at Henson studios by his daughter and through her, landed in the hands of comic book artist Ramón Pérez, who was granted the chance to adapt the largely dialogue-free script into a comic book epic. He went far beyond the call of duty and did so with an unparalleled imagination, verve and artistry resulting in a gorgeous book that stretches the limits of what’s possible on the printed page. Not simply taking cues from the script to create a polished storyboard, Pérez makes full use of the possibilities the comics medium has to offer and employs the same kind of willingness to push them as Henson did with his medium when he made his experimental films. It doesn’t hurt that the book is a beautifully designed book too, with parts of the actual script visually leading into the illustrated story pages. The book even has an elastic band running around the covers, mimicking the look and feel of an oversized notebook containing the script. Above all though, it’s a captivating, surrealistic tale driven by an artist as skilled as he is fearless. Tale Of Sand is an insanely wild ride, and when it is over you can’t wait to take it again.