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Nexus Graphica
by Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan
Cecil Castellucci
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite
Rebel Visions
I Live Here
Echo: Moon Lake
The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation
Too Cool to be Forgotten
Scott Pilgrim

That Was The Year That Was. Part Two.

As Mark so elegantly announced last time, the Nexus Graphica brain trust have compiled our very own top ten graphic novel or comics-related publications lists of 2008. Mark began this shindig, so it falls to me to introduce the final five selections.

Even with the economy crashing down around them, publishers produced enough excellent books for each of us to create diverse lists. Outside of our three identical selections, Mark and I managed to generate unique groups of astounding quality.

The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko 5. (Mark) The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 by Thomas Ott (Fantagraphics)
Silence is golden in this spooky, visual "mood piece" from the Zurich-born Ott. Trained in art and design, he doesn't so much write graphic novels, as design them. In this particular tale, a sequence of numbers discovered by a prison guard after an execution, seems to bring good fortune, when viewed/used correctly. Or does it? There's the inevitable "Monkey's Paw" payback in these tales, and The Number is no exception. It's a fun, Twilight Zone-like ride (and a bit sobering for those who actually use words to tell stories!), and whether it rises to the lingering resonance of some of the best Zone episodes may depend on how much one puts into subsequent readings, and scanning the panels for critical -- and inexorably mounting -- details.

(Rick) Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics)
The first critical retrospective of the co-creator of Spider-man, Strange and Stranger grants an inside look into the workings and artistic life of this unusual man. Bell successfully argues for Ditko's rightful place within the pantheon of great artists without hiding Ditko's shortcomings as a person. His strong adherence to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism made a pariah out of the artist. Bell shines light on many diverse corners of the comics industry in an attempt to understand the reclusive Ditko. Lavishly illustrated throughout, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is a must for both fans of the artist in particular and comic book history in general.

Scott Pilgrim Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan 4. (Mark) Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni)
Okay, only the 4th volume in the series was "new" in 'aught eight, but I hadn't caught up with this much lauded North American manga until recently -- at the usually perceptive insistence of co-scribe Rick K. When I found myself on a cross-California train ride, I rectified that particular situation. The franchise is being turned into a film as we speak, but in spite of its growing "cross-platform" fame, I'd recommend the book for no other reason than a character -- in this case, a 17-year-old Asian girl -- is named Knives Chau. I spend some time naming characters in made-up universes myself. "Knives Chau" shows humor and precept, all in one fell swoop. But mostly O'Malley -- using a deliberately "primitif" art style -- tells of a group of Toronto-based mostly 20-somethings who drift in and out of rock bands, relationships, and apartments, and live in a video game world where their own ennui is suddenly shaken loose by someone transporting through a dream portal in their head, or being challenged to a spontaneous fight to the death, in a library or nightclub. After the four extant volumes, and I'm still not entirely sure what the rules of Pilgrim's universe are -- but I'm getting there. Regardless, I like the goofy spirit of the books. Then again, maybe it's just magical realism for the Bioshock generation. And there's no excuse for the finished move not being, well, damn compelling: Think St. Elmo's Fire crossed with Buckaroo Banzai!

(Rick) Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan by Chip Kidd, Geoff Spear, and Paul Ferris (Pantheon)
Unbeknownst to most fans and historians, an original series of Batman tales appeared in the pages of the popular weekly manga Shohen King. Inspired by the Adam West Batman TV show and employing a unique blend of Western and Japanese styles, Jiro Kuwata's singular vision of the Caped Crusader (and Robin) debuted in 1966. Kidd reprints a large selection of the strips along with full color covers and images of various 60s Japanese Batman collectible paraphernalia. Kuwata's tales compare favorably with any of the era's Batman stories. Designer Kidd's wise decision to reprint the strips in the traditional manga format, right to left in an over-sized thick volume reminiscent of the original Shohen King, adds an additional layer of quality to this sensational collection.

Janes in Love The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite 3. (Mark) Janes in Love by Cecil Castellucci (script) and Jim Rugg (art) (Minx)
No sooner do we interview Cecil and review this sequel to her gal-powered, post-9/11, necessary-during-the-Bush-reign graphic novel opus, The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, than DC/Vertigo announces it's canceling the entire "Minx" project -- itself ostensibly an island of grounded grrrl sensibility in what is still a sea of testosterone in the "sequential art" world. What were they thinking? In any case, at least they ended this particular Great Experiment on a high note. One of the visual keys to this continuation of this high-school, art-based Monkeywrench Gang-like tale, is a great splash page involving flowers: specifically, where everyone has dressed up as flowers, under their "regular" clothes, launching a display of secret foliage in a public setting, and forming a sudden, no-longer-secret garden. It's emblematic of what is best about the Janes books: Castellucci and Rugg develop not only well-observed characters (including in this "middle chapter," those of a "certain age" -- i.e. middle or senior) but rather ingenious unauthorized art installations, as the Janes and their growing band of cohorts push back against that "new world order" of restrictions, curfews, and no-questions-asked of anyone in authority. Along the way, they variously fall in love, some successfully, some problematically -- facing rejection, or less-than-Harlequin-Romance ideals that have to be accommodated. Just like in life. And as in the book, we'll hope that we soon start seeing art where it's not supposed to be "allowed." Publisher cancellations or no.

(Rick) The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way (writer) and Gabriel Ba (artist) (Dark Horse)
Gerard Way, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and Gabriel Ba created a surreal world of super powers, musical villains, and intelligent chimpanzees. Forty-seven children were spontaneously born to women who were not pregnant. Sir Reginald Hargreeve (a.k.a. The Monocle), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and inventor, adopts seven of the children "to save the world." The children, collectively identified as the Umbrella Academy, encounter a myriad of bizarre villainy in the guise of the zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel, the chronal-irregularity repairing entities known as The Terminauts, and the musically-empowered White Violin. Not since Grant Morrison's kinetic Doom Patrol of the 90s has a series successfully mixed a quality of insanity and social commentary with a group of uniquely odd characters. Each gorgeously crafted page contains artistic and intellectual delights galore.

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite The Number 2. (Mark) The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way (writer) and Gabriel Ba (artist) (Dark Horse)
My Chemical Romance-singer Way teams up with artist-on-the-rise Ba -- anyone with a multi-syllable surname wouldn't be suited for the aesthetic, perhaps -- in this go-for-baroque send-up, homage, and transcendence of "superhero team" books. The Foundling children that make up "the Umbrella Academy" are neither as well-adjusted as X-Men (which is saying something), nor as highly regarded -- by a long shot -- by the public as members of various titanic teen, avenging, or justice-based congenial superhero agglomerations. In fact, the orphans-forced-into-siblinghood have relations as frosty and subtext-laded as any character in a play by the just-departed Harold Pinter. But other comics have achieved similar emotional observations. Here, the complex relations happen on a surreal landscape involving vengeful pieces of iconic architecture, 50s-era space heroes, German Expressionist-influenced "orchestras of the damned," and more in a stew that is perhaps occasionally more than can be easily chewed, but is always brave in what it's willing to try in terms of "conventional" comic book narrative tropes -- or bursting those tropes apart. And that willingness counts for a lot. Gothic, goofy, bloody, fascinating, it's the most interesting superhero collection of the year.

(Rick) The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 by Thomas Ott (Fantagraphics)
In the 20s and 30s, artists such as Frans Masereel (The Idea) and Lynd Ward (Gods' Man) used woodcuts to produce popular wordless novels which would go on to influence generations of illustrators. The Swiss artist Thomas Ott employs a similar style in his first novel-length work. Ott relates a powerful, Twilight Zone-styled tale of a series of numbers that grants desires to those who decipher the pattern. Following an execution, a prison guard finds a piece of paper with a sequence of numbers (the title's 73304-23-4153-6-96-8) left behind by the dead prisoner. The guard begins to see the numbers cropping up in his life (a clock, a phone number, cards, and even a dog's markings). As he follows the seemingly random numbers, the guard's luck begins to change. Previously a poor, lonely man, he soon comes into money, romance, and happiness, perhaps for the first time. Alas, all this fortune does not last, as the story veers off into surprisingly fantastical and creepy territory. From artistic, design, and narrative standpoints, Ott creates a masterpiece of contemporary graphic storytelling that knows no geographical or linguistic boundaries.

Rebel Visions I Live Here 1. (Mark) Rebel Visions by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics)
Not a comic book, but a book about comics, documentary filmmaker Rosenkranz' book about the underground comix scene of the 60s and 70s based mostly out of the San Francisco Bay Area moved me more than anything else I reviewed here this year. And I freely admit it's because I was there as a sprout, budding comics reader, hopeful future writer, etc. The book palpably evoked those moments when change, it seemed, was not only possible, but inevitable, even in the America of Richard Nixon. And comics -- with the "cs" adeptly replaced by an "x" -- would be part of that, well, revolution. The book reminded me that, growing up in Berkeley of that era, I took for granted that all kids had access, on their local newsstands, to "underground" comics like Zap, Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Leather Nun, Slow Death, and the rest. I mean, I could tell from the sex -- and occasional violence -- they weren't meant for kids, but like your dad's Playboys, they weren't that hard to come across, if you put your mind to it. I had assumed, in other words, that such comix were part of the "regular" American landscape back then. Though, of course, with the likes of Art Spiegelman winning Pulitzers, and R. Crumb showing up in The New Yorker, they are now.

Part of the reason there's a Vertigo line, for instance, or Watchmen, or something like The Punisher: The End with its apocalyptic politics (to say nothing of the artwork by underground comix alum Richard Corben), is because the undergrounds shook up the idea of what comics could do -- or be... and what better way to go into the new year, thinking of all that still untapped potential?

(Rick) I Live Here by Mia Kirschner with James MacKinnon; designed by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons (Pantheon)
Celebrity philanthropic efforts often center around a few photo opportunities showcased to further a career. These helpful and usually well-meaning events usually shine a spotlight on the truly needy such as the numerous Africa plights, occupied Tibet, or the disaster relief du jour. Rather than host a dinner or celebrate her fame, actress Mia Kirshner (The L Word) visited four ravaged areas, conducting interviews with the women and children most affected. I Live Here relates her encounters in Ingushetia, Burma, Ciudad Juárez, and Malawi within a graphically-intense series of four oversized, thin paperbacks, wrapped inside a hardcover case. Each book also contains a graphic novella, and two of the volumes feature related short stories.

The magnificent design by Adbusters-alumni Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons weaves all the disparate elements into one of the finest looking publications ever produced. The package in support of the project forms an amazing work of art.

Mia Kirshner shines an unwavering, informative light on important and troubling non-U.S.centric issues in a truthful and often disturbing manner. She elevates celebrity philanthropic efforts to an extraordinary new level of sophistication in both content and style. An exceptional book of rare quality, I Live Here exceeds all expectations.

I Live Here


Being limited to ten selections, several deserving titles just barely missed my cut: Scott Pilgrim (which Mark wisely included), Echo: Moon Lake (Abstract Studios), The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation (Hill and Wang), and Too Cool to be Forgotten (Top Shelf). These along with any of the previously mentioned above or in our prior column are gems worth discovering.

With many promising books scheduled for 2009, Mark and I, much like the Crypt Keeper and Uncle Creepy, will remain your ever vigilant guides through the dark, mysterious, and often absurd graphical realities. Mr. Williams returns in two weeks with the final Nexus Graphica of the Bush II era. And I'll see you next month in these very pixels.

Copyright © 2009 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams

Rick Klaw produced four years of the popular monthly SF Site column "Geeks With Books", and supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The San Antonio Current, The Austin Chronicle, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures RevolutionSF, Conversations With Texas Writers, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century.

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogames, comics, and plays, and wonders if the next administration will include another Federal Writers Project in its own "top ten" to-do list.

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