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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:
Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor
Locas II: Maggie, Hopey & Ray
All Star Superman Volume Two
Dan Goldman's website -- with free 20 pg. download of 08
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Chicken With Plums
Jan's Atomic Heart
Swallow Me Whole

That Was The Year That Was 2009, Part One

I've cleaned the house, shelved the books, and chilled the bubbly so it must be time to announce the Nexus Graphica best graphic novels/comics/funny books of the year. As with last year, Mark and I each picked the top ten titles that we encountered over the past year or so. The back half of our countdown (10-6) falls on my shoulders.

Since we have different tastes and don't always read the same books, our lists tend to differ greatly. For this initial part, just one title ranks on both Mark's list and my own -- in the same place, oddly enough, since we determine our lists independently.

Enough preamble. On with the show.

Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor 10. (Rick) Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor by Rick Geary (NBM)
Acclaimed creator Geary explores the true story of the infamous Taylor murder. Set during the early days of Hollywood, when movies were silent and a person could hide from a questionable past, Famous Players opens with a brief overview of the film industry circa 1922, and then dives into the murder itself. Found dead from a single gunshot wound, successful director Taylor left behind a bevy of jilted women and unsavory associates. Geary succinctly and deftly examines the lives of Taylor and the key suspects without casting aspersions or conclusions, and his decorative, precise art perfectly encapsulates the period.

Locas II: Maggie, Hopey & Ray (Mark) Locas II: Maggie, Hopey & Ray by Jamie Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
The list opens with something highly personal (in two weeks!) so why not close that way? Love & Rockets has been a "contrapuntal" rhythm in my cultural/media life since new wave was, well, new, and I was at least a couple decades younger. And the characters in the panels of Los Bros Hernandez get to age (though, granted, more slowly than you or me), like the rest of us.

They put on weight, fuck up their love lives (though sometimes not), get new jobs, strip off their clothes (Hernandez draws fantastic, zaftig, wide-hipped women), they befuddle men (and each other) and are befuddled by them, and along the way, the occasional mystical, epiphanic event happens. Like life. Though befuddlement tends to linger longer than epiphany. Just like...

Well, you get it.

In one story, there's an "after con" party at an L.A. house, which, the narrator notes, is "full of burned out artists and fanboy types who came to L.A. for work and stayed twenty years too long." That's always the fear about L.A., of course, and what it does to you -- and what you become (or don't) while living here.

All Star Superman Volume 2 08 A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail 9. (Rick) All Star Superman Volume 2 by Grant Morrison (script) and Frank Quietly (art) (DC)
Volume 1 of Morrison's and Quitely's brilliant work ranked among my top ten graphic novels of 2008, and the finale achieves a similar distinction. Morrison concludes his imaginative, early 21st century updating of the goofy circa 50s Superman science fiction tales as the dying hero journeys to the Bizarro Universe and discovers other Kryptonians bent on conquest. After seventy years of Man of Steel stories, Morrison and Quitely have created quite possibly the finest Superman tale of all time.

(Mark) 08 A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail by Michael Crowley (script) and Dan Goldman (art) Three Rivers Press
Made more poignant, in a way, by the near-year in which the realpolitik facing -- and, sadly, generated by -- the Obama administration has showed just how far away "hope" and "change" still are, this non-fiction "documentary" opus was still one of the liveliest books on a Presidential campaign I've read since Hunter S. Thompson's 1972-set Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (still the definitive work in this genre). 08, by New Republic editor Crowley and Shooting War artist Goldman, had a then still-fresh-from-election-night insight into the rise of the Junior senator from Illinois to the Presidency, all while the U.S. continues to teeter on -- and into -- a 21st century abyss. Echoing Haskell Wexler's "fiction" film Medium Cool, set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic convention, the first half of the book is the most fascinating -- especially the inside baseball stuff about the Republicans falling out, and over themselves -- since those are the tales known mostly to political junkies and campaign volunteers. The narrative of the general election we all know, though the tale of this administration, itself teetering on the edge of timidity and irrelevance in the face of the dire historical forces it confronts, is still unwritten, and awaits this work's "sequel."

Flight Volume Six Whatever Became of the Caped Crusader? 8. (Rick) Flight Volume Six Edited by Kazu Kibuishi (Villard)
Much like the previous six books (Volumes 1-5 plus Flight Explorer) of this extraordinary anthology series, the 15 stories in Flight Volume Six offer creators from around world employing a variety of genres: fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and slice-of-life ranging from serious to whimsical. Every beautiful story in this impressive book delights, but several stand out. Michel Gagné's charming story "The Saga of Rex: Soulmates" tells the silent tale of two cat-like creatures and their interplanetary love. In "The Excitingly Mundane Life of Kenneth Shuri," J.P. Ahonen chronicles the challenges that confront an unemployed ninja. A seemingly incompetent Viking stars in Graham Annable's funny "Magnus the Misfit." Cory Godbey follows a man's dreams in the moving "Walters." Justin Ridge's "Dead Bunny" follows an undead rabbit looking for companionship. Rather than experiencing series fatigue, Flight Volume Six ranks among the finest volumes of this unique anthology.

(Mark) Whatever Became of the Caped Crusader? written by Neil Gaiman, art by Andy Kubert (DC)
I was somewhat sobered to realize this is my only "superhero" comic on the list -- isn't that where I came in to the medium, so many decades ago? Whether it's a function of not having caught up with everything this year (Rick's favored "Superman," for example, which I still have to read), or wondering where superhero tropes can really go in a post-"Watchmen" world, I'm not sure. Nonetheless, when Gaiman was cajoled -- by his account -- into writing the "final" issues of regular Batman and Detective Comics continuity, before one of those "reboots" of which comics publishers are so fond, he created one of the great recent tales of that certain self-trained detective. And he is aided immeasurably by Kubert's art, which recreates various eras and iterations of Batman -- and his nemeses -- as the Caped one is being eulogized at his own funeral. Or is he? In any case, the journey through the decades becomes a riff on what Batman means to Gotham City, to the villains who need him, and finally, to us. And in a way, all those changes through the decades, from late 30s Deco to austere 80s angst, and more, are "explained" with a mystical twist similar to themes in the latest Battlestar Galactica. Except, for all its virtues, BSG never used a version of Goodnight, Moon as well as Gaiman does here.

Chicken with Plums 7. (Rick) Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)
The creator of the acclaimed Persepolis returns with a new family story. After his wife destroys his beloved tar (a Persian lute), musician Nasser Ali Khan decides to die. Satrapi recounts the eight days until his death, manipulating time as she relates the futures of his children and grandchildren. Along the way, Satrapi accomplishes the seemingly impossible by turning the bitter, unlikable Nasser into a truly sympathetic character. Through her masterful use of layout, design, and shadow, Satrapi creates an extraordinary family memoir.

(Mark) Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)
Not really a sequel to her acclaimed Persepolis about growing up in Iran in two despotic regimes -- those of the Shah, and the Mullahs that followed -- but mining the same rich cultural vein, Satrapi returns to her native Iran, and her family tree, for this story of a musician caught in a bad marriage, who wills himself to death after his beloved tar (a Persian lute-like instrument) is smashed in the heat of a domestic quarrel. He tries to recapture the magic with other instruments, but the metaphor is clear: his spirit is broken. It's a simple tale -- the main spine of it unfolds in little over a week -- told by Satrapi with her increasing mastery of the form, as she takes in the fates of subsequent generations, and all the consequences of self-absorption, whether in the form of splenetic rage, or suicidal passivity. And amazingly, she brings dynamism to this examination of not-always-likable characters.

Jan's Atomic Heart Swallow Me Whole 6. (Rick) Jan's Atomic Heart by Simon Roy (New Reliable Press)
Simon Roy's near-future thriller of robotics and terrorism ushers in a major new talent. Following an accident, the mind of Jan, a computer analyst, is downloaded into an outmoded Lunar robot. In this reality, the Earth holds a very tentative peace after a war with the Lunar colonies. Jan discovers that similar Lunar models have committed acts of terrorism. Roy populates his red herring-laced plot with multi-faceted, realistic personae. Top all that off with his magnificent Tardi-influenced art and the unheralded Jan's Atomic Heart emerged as one the year's biggest and most pleasant surprises.

(Mark) Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (Top Shelf)
By way of "plot" synopsis, Top Shelf's own copy serves as well as anything I could conjure here: "Two step-siblings hold together amidst schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, family breakdown, animal telepathy, misguided love, and the tiniest hope that everything will someday make sense." And that's just the thing -- it doesn't make "sense." Not in the usual three-act conflict/resolution/catharsis storytelling kinda way. Nor, I think, is it supposed to, since Powell is trying to convey the experience of schizophrenia from the inside out, drawn -- so to speak -- from his own 10-year stint of working with adults with developmental disabilities. He excels at the use of negative space to convey emotions -- mostly engulfing, panicky ones -- and one is left, at the end of the book, with a kind of wistful sadness, and the thought that you'd better read it again.

Mark returns in two weeks, ushering in the epic conclusion.

Copyright © 2009 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams

Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures, RevolutionSF, 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. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, which is currently being developed for large and small screens, and is currently hard at work his own, post-gentrification version of the L.A. apocalypse. He occasionally rides his bike across stretches of the Valley, and is also a contributor to entertainment biz trade papers like Variety, Below the Line, and more. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz

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