What’s the point of this? I dunno, I just felt like doing a list, and everyone else seems to be doing one too. Keep in mind that I am not a professional comics critic, and I haven’t even read some major works yet, like Habibi or Jaime Hernandez’s new story, so while those will be on everyone else’s list, they aren’t on mine. How I made this list: I scanned my bookshelves to pick out every book published in 2011 (that I read), put them on a spreadsheet, and imagined that I had to sell all but 10 to pay my rent (assuming, of course, that they would all sell for the same price – the value of the books doesn’t factor into this.) I do write a lot about my favorite books to own, since this is a book collecting blog… but for a change, this post is about my favorite books to read. That being said, I have written extensively in these here pages about how the physical object of a book plays into my experience reading it, so I can’t ignore it entirely.
Here we go…
THE TOP TEN
Mascots by Ray Fenwick (Fantagraphics)
Sometimes art, sometimes comics, all graphic insanity. The thing about Fenwick’s work that keeps me coming back is the way his page designs are always completely perfect and orderly, whether they conform to a rigid, boxy structure or float randomly on the page. He has total command of every page, and every letter or little detail within that page, but he uses a logic that is totally unique to his work. Just amazing stuff. Not much of a story to follow, but this is the book I come back to whenever I’m feeling burned out creatively, and it never fails to inspire me.
(Note: this was actually published in December 2010, but the special edition was released through Tiny Showcase in January 2011, so I’m counting it.)
Stupid Dreams by Joey Alison Sayers (1984 Publishing)
Along with Julia Wertz and Lisa Hanawalt, Joey Sayers is the funniest writer in comics. Stupid Dreams collects her 5-minute comics, which perfectly suit her sense of humor… the drawings are rough, which only aids the jokes, since impeccable draftsmanship isn’t really required when the punchline is “Whatever, dude, I’m gonna go shove some pot up my ass.” Sayers is capable of a mining pretty difficult emotional territory, as evidenced by her “Just so you Know” series, so she certainly isn’t a one-note cartoonist. Still, this is a mostly one-note collection, although it’s a consistently hilarious note, hence its place on the list.
Forming by Jesse Moynihan (Nobrow)
Oh my God, I love this book. I guess sci fi epics are kind of having a moment in alt comics right now, with CF, Chippendale, Thurber, etc. fully embracing the genre to much success. Still, Forming offers something those others don’t by playing off the contrast between the epic nature of the story and the colloquial informality of the dialogue (which is often very funny). Moynihan keeps the story moving along without devolving into self-indulgent setpieces, and his art has a handmade quality to it that is just awesome to look at. (I don’t know how Moynihan works, if he uses a tablet or messes around with color in Photoshop, but whatever he does, it came out great.) I can’t wait for the next volume in the series.
Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)
This one is a no-brainer – Woodring is at the top of his game right now, to the point where his stories almost look effortless, like he dashes them off in his sleep. While maybe not as tight as Weathercraft in terms of plot structure, the notion of a world where the laws of the Unifactor no longer apply gives Woodring free rein to indulge all kinds of craziness, with Frank as the innocent-but-not-noble center of it all. I’ve read it a few times, but still feel like there’s quite a bit for me to get out of it.
The Wolf by Tom Neely (I Will Destroy You)
Tom Neely is kind of my hero, given that he’s built up a substantial reputation without a major publisher behind him. The Wolf is the proof that he’s on the right track, since he used the total freedom afforded by his choice to self-publish to produce one of the most unclassifiably brilliant books I have read in a long time. Like Congress of the Animals, it is totally wordless, but while I see Woodring’s work as a way for the artist to work out many of the ideas swirling around in his head, The Wolf digs deeper, laying bare the dark and difficult forces in the artist’s soul. It’s also the most Hegelian art book I have seen, moving from thesis to antithesis and finally to synthesis in a way that causes the book ultimately to transcend a lot of the shocking sexual and violent imagery within. Simply stunning.
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (Drawn and Quarterly)
I have been awaiting this one for years, as I watched the serialized version of the story wend its way through each issue. Like Ganges #4 on this list, Big Questions is remarkable for how much it pulls from a plot that can be described in only a couple sentences. The open, airy panel layout lets the story breathe, although it reads much tighter than I remember it from the individual issues. This book has already garnered quite a bit of deserved praise, so I’ll just finish this off by saying that reading this book consistently leaves me in awe of how Nilsen actually succeeds in examining every aspect of the human condition via his little birds.
Ganges #4 by Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics)
Another comic that has received quite a bit of praise, I think this was my favorite issue of the Ganges Ignatz series, simply based on how deftly it weaves Ganges’s real life with his mental flights of fancy as he fights his insomnia. The little touches really set this one apart, such as the little book covers of the boring books Ganges searches through in hopes of finding one sufficiently boring to put him to sleep. Now that the Ignatz line is kaput, it will be interesting to see where Huizenga goes with this storyline, since it definitely has legs beyond this issue.
O Dingos O Chateaux and Like a Sniper Lining up his Shot by Jacques Tardi (Futuropolis/Fantagraphics)
OK so maybe it’s a cheat to include two books in one spot, but both of these are amazing, and I can’t just choose one. The French version of Like a Sniper was published last year, although Fantagraphics published the English edition this year. O Dingos O Chateaux hasn’t been translated yet, but supposedly it is on Kim Thompson’s slate for the near future, which is a good thing, since it’s aces. These books are similar, in that they are both adaptations of the same author (Jean Patrick Manchette), expertly rendered in comics form by Tardi. I have a much longer piece I will post soon about Like a Sniper – of the two, that one is more challenging from a reader’s perspective (although it is still quite a blast to read). O Dingos O Chateaux is an earlier work by Manchette, before he had evolved to become the master of the French noir novel. The central relationship between a caretaker and the child charged to her care is multilayered and adds quite a bit of depth to the book – and of course, the presence of a deranged hired killer whose need to complete his mission goes beyond just pleasing his employer and cashing a paycheck makes things pretty fun as well. It’s not quite as violent as Like a Sniper, although there’s plenty of blood. In Tardi’s hands, both novels make excellent comics – Tardi’s late-period departure from his clear line style suits these types of stories perfectly, and his art just adds to the fun of reading them.
The Eyes of the Cat by Jodorowski and Moebius (Humanoids)
And here we are with yet another Moebius book that appeared and then disappeared within the space of a couple days. A deluxe reprinting of the original Jodorowski/Moebius story, this one really benefits from the oversized publication (12 x 16), as Moebius’s linework has a chance to relax and not come across as compressed as it sometimes appears in smaller formats. If you are a fan of Moebius (which I am), there’s no way this book doesn’t make your list, as it is more or less a showcase of what he brings to the medium. (I also toyed with the idea of putting the French version of the collected L’Incal on this list, since it was only released this past September, but I didn’t, since that book has been collected in so many other editions. I haven’t read the Humanoids editions of The Incal, since the lettering in the Humanoids editions is robotic and gross, and Moebius is a really dynamic letterer. Luckily, The Eyes of the Cat isn’t heavy on text, so it works okay here.)
Mr. Wonderful by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon)
Yeah yeah, Clowes is great, let’s move on. I didn’t read this story when it was originally serialized, although I do think Clowes made a great choice in adding splash pages in between the different weekly episodes. They work within the context of the book and add to the story without making it overly episodic as a self-contained book. Another artist (like Woodring and Tardi) who at this point seems incapable of releasing something subpar.
Furlqump by Brett Harder (Chance Press)
How could I not put Furlqump on this list? I have invested quite a bit of my 2011 in bringing this book out, from scanning the art, correcting colors, designing the book, printing, binding, marketing, etc. But all that aside, it is an amazing book – I wouldn’t have made that investment of my own time (and yes, my money) if I didn’t believe in it. Brett’s is a totally original voice in comics, and while he’s flying under the radar now, he won’t be for long. And yes, I would argue that this is one of the best comics publications of the year, biased as I may be.
THE NEXT TEN (and why they didn’t make the Top-10 list):
Paying For it by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly) – Daring and well illustrated, but Brown’s emotionless approach to sex and love leaves me cold. Despite agreeing with him for the most part, I couldn’t help feeling like I was arguing with a libertarian in my own head, and that is one of my least favorite things to do.
The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes (Drawn & Quarterly) – Possibly the best single-issue comic of all time and deserving of its own hardcover version, but with all the other good stuff on this list, I didn’t want to use a spot on a book that isn’t substantially different from when it was first published.
Love from the Shadows by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Beto’s Fritz B-Movie series books are fun, but they’re missing the depth of his other work. I’m glad they’re part of his universe, but I think he’s selling himself short – something that will hopefully be remedied when Marble Season comes out.
Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly) – I liked “Amber Sweet” better in Kramers Ergot 7… I don’t think it particularly benefits from the embellishments added in this volume. “Hortisculpture” is good but not great in the context of Tomine’s canon, and my favorite part of the issue is the short autobio strip at the end. I loved both Summer Blonde and Shortcomings, and this issue feels like a step back from those books, at a time when so many of Tomine’s contemporaries are producing the best work of their careers.
1-800 Mice by Matthew Thurber (Picturebox) – This book is awesome, and it is one of the last ones I cut before making my list. Ultimately, though, I found it slipping here and there into self-indulgent territory – we all know Thurber is incredibly talented and a super-nice guy to boot, I just think 1-800 Mice sprawls a little bit too much for its own good.
The Cabbie by Marti (Fantagraphics) – Another darkly funny noir book that I enjoyed, although I prefer Tardi’s engagement with the genre. Also, I am not very familiar with the Dick Tracy comics that Marti satirizes in this book, so perhaps some of it was lost on me.
Freeway by Mark Kalisneko (Fantagraphics) – This book has some great (the perfectly-drawn flashbacks to the early days of Los Angeles), some good (the story of a man coming to terms with his dream not panning out), and some I could have done without (the behind the scenes politicking at an animation studio). Freeway lays it on a little thick that it used to be great to work in animation, and now it is a grind like any other job. Also, every time I read a Kalisneko book, I wish he hand-lettered his dialogue or used a font that was less cold and fonty, since for me it detracts from his art, which is otherwise super expressive.
Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly (AdHouse) – Love it. Not quite substantial enough to stand up with my absolute faves from this year, but I absolutely enjoyed reading it, and I can’t wait to read a collection of these stories, which I’m sure will make my list whatever year it comes out.
Someday Funnies by Michel Choquette (Abrams) – This is the greatest comic book never published (and then finally published), and it doesn’t even make my list? I don’t know, this one kind of stands in a separate category for me. First, I’m young enough that I don’t feel any great connection to the 60’s, so my emotional investment in the art is much less than if I were 15 years older. Second since the stories in here are so short, I don’t lose myself in this book like the others I described – I approach it as more of an art book that I look at here and there, and less something that I sit down and really read.
Forgotten Fantasy by Peter Maresca (Sunday Press) – Same deal as above. Another amazing book that has opened my eyes to all kinds of comics I never knew existed. I’m happy to own this book, I’m grateful to Sunday Press for publishing it, and I look at it pretty often, but I just don’t connect to it on an emotional level like my top 10.