THE YEAR IN PICTURES

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What were the best comic books of the last year? Dan Nadel, founder of the PictureBox publishing house, lists his favourites ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

The comics of most interest to me in the past year or so have been those that feel practically breathed out, yet are comprehensive in their sense of place. If these books were prose, they would be by Joseph Mitchell or Ian Frazier, writers who mix the rhythm of eloquent speech with an awareness of the worlds around them.

Sammy Harkham’s latest comic book,Crickets #3 (self-published), is drawn with an easy-going naturalism that combines cartoony figuration with realistic settings. “Crickets” contains a handful of stories, the best and longest of which, “Blood of the Virgin”, tracks a young husband and father in Los Angeles in the early 1970s as he clumsily tries to make inroads in the lowest levels of an industry town. Harkham’s thin, descriptive lines bring humanity and soul to a topic that could easily degenerate into a litany of LA and film references.

Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius(Fantagraphics Books) was maybe my favourite graphic novel of the year, and I’m still trying to figure out just what exactly it is. Drawn and written in the graphic idioms of throwaway 1960s comic books such as “Richie Rich” and “Archie”, “Wally Gropius” (pictured) is about an angst-ridden, dumbfounded millionaire, looking for love in a lopsided modernist space fraught with emasculation, poverty, rock jingles and other things that make grown men cry.

Veering back towards the natural, there is Kevin Huizenga’s masterful "Wild Kingdom" (Drawn & Quarterly). Between the covers of a faux field guide, mostly four panels per page, Huizenga deftly documents the small life forms inhabiting human spaces (pictured top). His cartoon avatar, Glenn Ganges, goes about his life performing his suburban tasks, as the critters and motions of nature occur around him. Huizenga avoids a linear plot. Instead he allows us to hover above his landscape and thrillingly feel both the particularities and the whole.

Way out in North America, in the countryside past the suburbs, near a forest near a lake, John Brodowski has planted his "Curio Cabinet" (Secret Acres). Each story in this collection maintains a perfectly reasonable veneer until, for example, an enormous dog paw descends from the heavens and slaps a man out of a car, or a menacing Loch Ness Monster is hailed by a hard-rocking Judas Priest. This is a book in which a doppelganger of the old "Friday the 13th" villain Jason Vorhees, he of the hockey mask, appears again and again, like a totem, achieving a weirdly peaceful mythos by the end. And yet it all seems so ordinary in Brodowski’s methodical, carefully shaded panels, each unravelling just so, patiently waiting for us to give in to his logic. All of this is to say: I can’t think of a better metaphysical horror comic in recent memory.

If you prefer your horror straight-up, there’s Jacques Tardi’s recently translated "It Was The War in the Trenches" (Fantagraphics). In a series of faintly connected vignettes, Tardi lays out the lot of a French soldier in the first world war in exacting detail. Lest you be lulled by Tardi’s virtuosity, these drawings have a vicious spark to them. This matter-of-fact and sometimes grimly funny book, first published in France in 1994, digs a small and vital hole very deeply. It’s Tardi’s finest work of his four-decade long career.

Nearly as visceral, but to an entirely different effect, is a new, enormous collection of Polly and Her Pals (IDW), a great newspaper comic by Cliff Sterrett. What began in 1913 as a fairly typical domestic drama (harried father, wayward daughter) evolved into the only comic strip to incorporate Cubism, Futurism and the many other “isms” of the era before the second world war. Sterrett was a natural—a man who could scat the comics as easily as whistle them. By the early 1920s, he was pacing his mini-dramas like the frantic jazz of the time. The father attempting to surf becomes a hilarious jig as expressionist waves cut back and forth across the page; elsewhere, Ma and Pa accidentally switch eyeglasses, allowing for 11-panels of funhouse/cubist distortion.

Though they were contemporaries, it’s hard to imagine more different cartoonists than Sterrett and Denys Wortman, whose work is collected in "Denys Wortman’s New York" (Drawn & Quarterly), an aggregate portrait of the city in the 1930s and 40s by a man who could have been a Joseph Mitchell character himself. These single-page cartoons, first published in the New York World under the title “Metropolitan Movies”, are gestural drawings that capture life across all classes and all moments: construction sites, department stores, Coney Island, the theatre; the fire escape. Nothing escaped Wortman’s hand, but he didn’t sacrifice the small detail for the big point.

Maybe that’s what made this book, and all of the volumes above, so satisfying: each contains worlds that are finely, even painstakingly, described. The details are many and meaningful. They breathe nicely.

 

Dan Nadel is a writer and the founder of the visual culture publishing house PictureBox, based in New York. He is also the author of "Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969", and "Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980", both published by Harry N. Abrams.