Saturday, January 10, 2009

Best of 2008: The Top Ten

Finally, the top ten list. I want to make it quite clear that this is, obviously, based on my personal taste. I will do my best to justify said taste. This is a list featuring the comics I've read this year and came out this year, no reprints of easily obtained material that happened to come out in 2008. As well, I know, I know, I know, I need to broaden my reading habits a bit, but, honestly, money was tighter this year than usual and it's a lot easier to go to the shop each week and buy twenty bucks in singles than it is to buy one twenty buck book, especially with my CBR gig. I didn't always go to the shop weekly, but a couple of things made me begin, which made buying more books easier and, yeah, my "original graphic novel" depth really slid this year (not that it was generally that large), but, hey, if a work that I missed is truly great, I have no doubt that I will, at some point, read it. While I may not have done so right when it came out, I will read it at some point. Hell, I just read Chester Brown's The Little Man! Took me long enough, but I got it. And I will slowly get everything else.

That said, I apologise for nothing. And let's get on with it.

10. Batman by Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel and others. While the results weren't always as great as expected or wanted, the journey was very, very engaging. "Batman R.I.P." and the mystery of the Black Glove engrossed readers, especially ones like me. Each issue was an event unto itself as new clues arrived and new discussions were had. Now, does this book rank here probably more for the reaction I had to it and the fondness for the discussion that it produced than its actual quality? Sure, but those effects are part of the book's quality and that's why it makes my top ten. This was the discussion comic of the year and, as I said, one of the few that genuinely made me anticipate each and every issue. Batman was often the first comic I read each week, because, dammit, I wanted more information! I often considered reading it on the bus (I don't read comics on the bus--and, no, not because I'm ashamed, but because I don't find it comfortable because of their size and the manner in which they're put together physically), which I rarely do.

As for the actual story, I find Morrison's take on the character very interesting, although it's not one that I actually agree with. However, Morrison doesn't just use his Super-Batman, he provides reasons why Batman is so unique, so determined, so better than everyone else. In his final two issues, we pretty much discover that Batman's superpower is the ability to deal with more bullshit and craziness than anyone else. He is a human trauma absorber--and said trauma just makes him more determined and stronger. He has been able to live seventy years of experiences in only a decade... and it's, again, just made him better. Interesting ideas.

The duality of the Joker and Batman was a big draw for me here. Morrison's conception of that duality is cool as it's very similar to the duality of Professor X and Cassandra Nova in his New X-Men run, where, for the Joker, there's just him and Batman. When Batman shot him in the face, it didn't matter that it wasn't the "real" Batman, because it was Batman! In the dream world where Bruce Wayne never became Batman, the Joker is executed for his murders, because, without Batman, he cannot survive. Pairing the two in an intimate manner isn't new, but suggesting that they are the only two real people in the world is--especially suggesting that who wears the cowl doesn't matter, the same way that the Joker's personality doesn't matter: if he's in a costume, he's Batman, and if he's got pale skin, green hair and is batshit insane, he's the Joker.

I could continue, but none of this really justifies this spot for the book beyond "I anticipated each issue more than any other comic." If that doesn't tell you why this book deserves a spot here, I don't know what will.

9. glamourpuss by Dave Sim. This is my first real exposure to Dave Sim's work having never read Cerebus (it's on the list and I can easily see myself going on a mad spree at some point and obtaining all of the phone books) and it's quite something. Sim's exploration of Alex Raymond's photorealist art and its evolution is oddly engaging. I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I am. Honestly, I planned to give it a shot, because Sim is a legitimately important figure in modern comics and this was his latest project and who doesn't jump on board something like that? But, it's been a very enjoyable read... for the most part. His "essays" (for lack of a better word) on Raymond are really fun and accessable, even for those of us who don't know a lot about art. Sim's reproductions of Raymond's art are also very beautiful.

Where the book goes off the rails sometimes is in the fashion magazine parodies, which can be funny, but also have those bits of misogyny. Although, I haven't found these elements nearly as problematic as some, which makes me wonder if Sim's past statements on women and his reputation cause some to take this stuff in a harsher light than intended. The only issue that I'm not quite sure about is the one regarding anti-depressents and the amount prescribed to women--some things Sim says there I agree with, while others I don't. But, it's actually pretty easy to look past this stuff when the other parts of the comic are as good as they are.

The one spot where I take issue is the mocking of readers that Sim occasionally engages in over the amount of scantily-clad women featured in issues and that it's wrong to look at them... but he's the one drawing them. I know, it's meant to be in good humour, but a few of the jokes just seem really out there.

Overall, this process/parody book is unlike anything else out there, not just in content but in format, too. It may not cohere together in completely satisfying single issues, but it has yet to let me down.

8. Captain America by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Butch Guice, Luke Ross and others. I don't honestly know what to say about Captain America. It's a great thriller with action, politics and some solid meditation on the effect our pasts can have on our presents. The art is remarkably consistent, due to actual intelligence and effort put into making sure it's consistent. That's actually something about Captain America I find frustrating only because no one else seems to be learning from it. I hate, hate, hate it when something new and smart comes along and no one bothers to notice and go "Hey, that is a much better way of doing things!" Sure, it brings back memories of house styles, but the style here is an interesting and dynamic one. Fuck, it's just so obvious.

Otherwise, this book continues to be great as this year focused exclusively on James Barnes as Captain America--and it's more interesting than when Steve Rogers wore the costume. Barnes has a girlfriend and passion and inner conflict and, really, is a much more complex character, one I'd rather read about. Brubaker hasn't just made Barnes a plausible Captain America, he's made me dread the idea of Steve Rogers coming back.

7. Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, Farel Dalrymple and Gary Panter. This is a book that I don't know how to describe. I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing since it was published. Well, that's a lie. I've had dozens of chances, I just haven't. And it's not a secret sign that I don't like it, it's for that same reason I don't reread Crime and Punishment: it's daunting and it's demanding, and I just haven't felt like devoting my mental energies to something I've already read like that just yet. But I will, hopefully soon, because this was a wonder of a book. I still can't believe that Marvel published it, it's such a departure and only works to make most of their output look awful by comparison.

This is a book about loneliness and camaraderie. It's a fun take on concepts like the Green Lanterns, but also very grounded. The final issue is a true work of beauty and art, delivering a conclusion totally unexpected yet totally appropriate. I don't really know what else to say. I've never read the original Omega the Unknown and kind of feel like, when I do, I won't like it nearly as much--sort of like when you see the remake of an old movie and then watch the original to discover that, surprise surprise, the remake actually is better! It doesn't happen often, especially in "mainstream" superhero comics, but I think it may have here.

6. Aetheric Mechanics: A Graphic Novella by Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarani. The overall execution of this graphic novella is pretty much perfect. It's expansive yet intimate, focused yet general, and it's got an ending that still blows me away. It's not original in anything other than the combination of ideas and execution. I would be lying if I said that the ending isn't a big reason why this book ranks this high, because it's one hell of an ending. Probably the best ending I've ever seen in a Warren Ellis comic. This book even has a perfect panel. There is a panel near the end of the book that is absolutely perfect in every respect, including the lettering (and how often is lettering considered perfect?).

Aetheric Mechanics is one of Ellis's Apparat books where he explores ideas quickly and without any intention of a follow-up. It began with the Apparat Singles Club, four first issues to comic series that don't exist and now he's in phase two where he tests out the "graphic novella," which falls somewhere between a single floppy issue and a graphic novel, much like a novella is between a short story and a novel. That Ellis is using pulp roots and, here, Sherlock Holmes roots really works with the idea of the format.

This book is much more than Sherlock Holmes homage and much more than just Sherlock Holmes meets science fiction... it falls very much in line with Ellis's other works with Sax Raker fitting in alongside a lot of Ellis's previous creations, especially his detectives. Notice how Raker examines the murder scene and you'll see visual connections with Frank Ironwine and others... Ellis likes his detectives human and his forensic people invisible.

But, really, this book explores a very big idea and how someone would react to it, and the reaction is both startling and completely logical. Plus, some fantastic art.

5. Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. In issue two, "A Wolf Among Wolves," Teeg Lawless blacks out a lot when he's drinking and we get black panels, sometimes several in a row, but here's the thing: they're never the same size. The black-out panels are never the same size. That may not seem like a lot, but that is huge, that is genius, that is demonstrating something unique: what other medium can have multiple scenes blacked out, but signify that the times of each is different without breaking the black-out mood? (And can someone say that better, please?) Granted, none of the other six issues that came out this year could quite match the brilliance of that second issue, but the book is still pretty damn good.

Three self-contained-yet-linked stories and one four-part one, all centred on crime in a great noir tradition, all told by two people at the height of their craft and using every trick they can think up. This year (and in 2007, too), I'd read other people's thoughts about this book and a lot of people would say that, yeah, Brubaker and Phillips go really good noir, but so what? I know that wasn't meant as genre snobbery, but I always find that shit funny. No one thought Raymond Chandler was all that literate or grand at the time, either (and I know, two different things), but, hey, whatever.

The three self-contained-yet-linked stories set a high standard that I don't think "Bad Night" quite reached. It was a very good story no doubt about it, but those first three were better. I did love the end of "Bad Night," but I love my metafiction. But, "Bad Night" also played that trick where everything that came before suddenly seemed different and you just wanted to go back and read the whole thing over again. That's a very good trick, one that Brubaker and Phillips use very well here.

Honestly, I think Phillips is the better comic book creator (as I can't think of a better term) on this book and Brubaker does his damndest to keep up. Phillips may be the best artist working in "mainstream" comics right now and he's producing his best work ever on this book. His art alone may have secured a spot in the top ten (certainly the top twenty), but along with Brubaker's writing, Criminal is a must read.

4. Scalped by Jason Aaron, RM Guéra, and Davide Furno. If I begin reading a comic in trades, I don't usually begin buying it monthly. I hate having my books in multiple formats like that and, honestly, Vertigo books tend to get trade-waited no matter what. But, I got the first two collections of Scalped this year after reading about how fantastic a comic it is and then I put the book on my pull list, because everyone was right. The hype was no lie, the expectations were not raised beyond the ability of the creators, Scalped is a brilliant fucking comic and not buying it monthly would mean that I don't actually like comics. I'll say that right now: not reading Scalped month in, month out means that you don't like comics. Okay, strong words, because it may not be to everyone's taste, but that's not much of an excuse.

And, hey, I didn't think it would be to my tastes either. A comic about an Indian reservation. "Fuck that shit." I think I thought that sentence at one point. I really couldn't care less about a book set on an Indian reservation. Coming from Canada, I've had my share of literature about Native Americans/Canadians, mostly because 99% of it was awful, lots of cultural revisionism that promotes their culture as superior to the Western European one that I happen to fall into (and, trust me, the last thing I ever want to read is something that says that because I'm a white heterosexual male of Western European descent, I'm somehow an evil fucker--and, trust me, there's enough of that shit going around to make me wary of anything that may involve those ideas). But, you know, Scalped isn't about that. It's a crime comic. It could easily be set in a city, but it's set on a rez and it takes advantage of that to explore crime and its effect on people in different ways than an urban setting would allow. It's got bad guys that may be good guys and good guys that may be bad guys. It's heartbreaking in nearly every issue. It's slow, it's methodical, it's nasty and mean and cruel.

RM Guéra's art is a great fit for Jason Aaron's scripts. Guéra's art kind of reminds me of a crude Darick Robertson in that it can make you believe everything you see, but also does the grotesque well. Everyone looks real and unreal. It's really quite something.

You should read Scalped. I nearly didn't and, shit, what a mistake that would have been.

3. ACME Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware. I relate to Chris Ware's books like those of no other cartoonist. That's probably not a good thing, is it? I'm sure I'm not the only one (I'm certain of it, actually), but it's still not something that is all that great. "Hey, I really relate to the people in Ware's horribly depressing meditations on loneliness and isolation! YAY ME!" You know? But, if there is one thing that attracts me to Ware's work it's that I relate to it quite a bit. But, I relate to it because he's so good at what he does. People focus a lot on his art, which is integral, but I think I pick up his books for the writing--not that the two are easily separated. I'm always amazed when so talented an artist is also so talented a writer. The writing here is some of the best I've read all year and, had someone else drawn Ware's script (assuming that was possible), I'm sure this book would still find a place on this list.

But, we also get the special treat of Ware's art, which is continually evolving to find new ways to express his ideas and to present pages. In every book, I see a good dozen page layouts that I have never seen before. In every book. How does he do that? I don't know why, but I tend to focus on page layouts and why certain artists pick specific layouts. For the first half of this book, Ware works in variations of eight panels by six panels, which he continues into the second part, but he then expands it into sixteen by twelve... it's really something to see how he uses all these different panel sizes to impact the story and the emotion of each panel. And his actual drawings, which wouldn't look out of place in a children's cartoon, but drawing these incredibly real and harsh stories of people who are lonely and selfish and awful in many ways... Remarkable.

What surprised me most was, in the first half, how well Ware does sci-fi and horror... I'm not familiar with a lot of his work pre-volume 16 aside from Jimmy Corrigan, so this is a big departure from his regular work for me. And it's just so damn good. Shockingly good.

2. Young Liars by David Lapham. I'm not sure I can write about this comic better than I did in my description for CBR: "Twisted, unpredictable, complex, layered, insane, manic, musical, and totally messed up, Young Liars is everything I always wanted in a comic book but never thought to ask for. David Lapham is producing career-best work in an already stunning career. Each issue brings about new shocking revelations and makes me want the next even more." I can try to say more about this wonderful book, but I'm rather content with that description. Besides, we're honestly in the territory where what makes one book rank higher than another is so intangible and difficult to describe that I don't know I can properly explain why I like this book more than everything else except for my number one pick. I can describe its positive qualities, maybe deliver a personal anecdote or two, try and describe that indescribable something something, but it won't happen. So read the above description and understand that I loved reading this comic book in 2008 more than every other comic book but one.

1. Casanova by Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon. And this is the one. What makes Casanova better (if I'm going to use a word...) than everything else? Like I said with Young Liars, it's hard to put into words, because we're at a point where the high level of quality has evened for everything. Just like Batman was a book I read right away, Casanova was always saved for last. I like to read my books with the best at each end (usually the "lighter" stuff at the front and the "heavier" stuff at the back--Young Liars, glamourpuss and Scalped get saved for last, too) and this book was always the last of the last.

In sixteen pages (more for issue 14), Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon packed in more story, more emotion, more drama that most books do in their six-issue story arcs. This title was my number one book in 2007, too, and it continued to be amazing in 2008. Issue 14 was a triumph in concluding a story, but issue 13 was so emotionally charged, so full of small moments that I may have liked it more--until I think about issue 14 and the way that the narration doubled for Casanova and Fraction, the way that the world became so real in so many ways, Kubarck's reaction to Casanova, the desire to die, the desire to live, the assurance that it will turn out okay in the end even though you don't quite believe it... I don't know. How do you put into words why something like this is so brilliant, how it affected you so much?

I reread the second year of Casanova the other day without reading Fraction's backmatter essays and it was brilliant, an absolute masterpiece of storytelling and story construction. Seriously, that final issue... my god.

So, Casanova is my favourite comic of 2008 and, you know what, when it returns in 2009, I'm pretty sure it will have a good chance of being my favourite comic of 2009. Because it is, because in ten years, people will still be talking about what Fraction and the Evil Twins accomplished here, trying to figure out how it all worked and what made it so great--and, come on, if they'll still be trying then, what hopes do I have now?

And those were my top ten books of 2008.