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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams and Rick Klaw

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
West Coast Blues
You Are There
Crumb's Genesis
Asterios Polyp

That Was The Year That Was 2009, Part Two

And so, dear readers, after another long, fast, strange and lively year, Rick and I complete our round-up of work that struck us most profoundly, left the most lasting impressions, from all our Nexusing and Graphicking in this very space.

As Rick noted last time, in Part I, neither of us carry the conceit that this list is an objective "absolute best." Which is to say, there were doubtless other projects -- comics, graphic novels, web comics, etc. -- worthy of making the countdown.

But ours, of necessity, is comprised of the stuff we've actually read -- the things we came across, were sent to us, etc. And we don't both read the same stuff over the course of the year -- indeed, often if we know one of us is covering a book, that frees the other to read "something else" in order to write about it.

Though you will note that in this top five -- more than the first five, last column out -- there is more overlapping. And true enough, our top two choices are the same, even if the order is a tad different.

Enjoy. And I'll see you in the Arthur C. Clarke-like year of 2010....

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays West Coast Blues 5. (Rick) Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays edited by Brendan Burford (Villard)
In his introduction editor Brendan Burford explains, "[S]yncopation literally means that an accent or stress is placed on the weak beat between the usually dominant beats. When music is syncopated, it can offer a whole new perspective on rhythm." Using this definition as a guide, Burford compiled a diverse collection of quality stories. Some of the tales such as the excellent "How and Why to Bale Hay" by Nick Bertozzi offer uniquely personal histories. Others illuminate fascinating aspects of historical figures ("Erik Erickson" by Paul Karasik and "Dvorak" by Alec Longstreth). Burford and artist Jim Campbell relate one of the book's finest tales with the dynamic "Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz." Alex Holden's "West Side Improvements" chronicles the amazing story of graffiti artist Chris Pape (aka Freedom). Perhaps this extraordinary anthology's only weakness is a few too many New York-centric tales. But this is a small complaint. With Syncopated, Buford and his contributors have crafted a superior anthology.

(Mark) West Coast Blues Adapted by Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Fantagraphics)
Tardi's adaptation of Machette's "Franco-noir" novel is one of the year's best crime fiction reads, at least in comics. And in particular, for its Frenchness. By which I mean, its constant references to mid-20th century American culture. The plot hangs on a case of mistaken identity -- or at least, complete randomness -- à la Hitchcock, but for the world weary (natch) protagonist, immersed in be-bop jazz, Sam Fuller films, and a string of Gauloise cigarettes, the inevitability of the violence, as an intrusion into his middle class life seems, well, inevitable. And therefore, not really unexpected. So the story becomes more interesting still when he "rises to the occasion" in oh so many ways. Tardi's B&W art is wonderfully rendered. Another great example of "comics for grown-ups. Note that Rick mentions this book in tandem with another Tardi book which looks great -- but which I still haven't read cover-to-cover yet.

Similarly, what I've read of Syncopated -- which I received after Rick's original review came out -- also looks terrific; not always an even collection, but in the main, very evocative.

Humbug The Big Kahn 4. (Rick) Humbug
Following departures from his seminal creation Mad and the slick, full color parody magazine Trump, editor Harvey Kurtzman (along with Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, and Harry Chester) developed Humbug, a magazine of parodies (à la Mad), faux ads, and prose satires covering various aspects of media, politics, and sports. Though lasting only eleven monthly issues (August 1957 – August 1958), the publication paved the way for the general newsstand acceptance of similar magazines National Lampoon and Spy. Never before reprinted, Fantagraphics collects Humbug, complete with new essays, interviews, and annotations, in two handsome hardback volumes. The slipcased set wisely includes several insightful and interesting extras, that establish the proper context and historical background for the key players and the publication. Most importantly, scholar John Benson annotates all eleven issues.

(Mark) The Big Kahn by Neil Kleid (script) and Nicolas Cinquegrani (art) (NBM)
Kleid's story reads like something Philip Roth, or perhaps Nathan Englander, would write if they worked in comics. The story concerns identity -- but really, what Jewish stories ultimately don't? -- in this case, in a reverse of the traditional tropes, which mostly have to do with fitting in to the larger non-Jewish world, though here, a man living as a Rabbi for many years is revealed to be a gentile, during his funeral. His eldest son, Avi, is also a Rabbi -- or thought he was, until this crisis of heredity (and its attendant crisis in faith), leads him, and his entire family, to question what they really know of the world, and what it means, as ever, to be Jewish (or simply what it means to have a family). Cinquegrani's simple lines serve to augment the story without getting in its way, and he's able to do a lot with small "gestures" of ink when limning faces. That the story doesn't end in a neatly resolved way -- in the manner of the kinds of 70s-era films that don't get made anymore -- is even better.

West Coast Blues You Are There Stitches 3. (Rick) Pair of Jacques Tardi books from Fantagraphics:
West Coast Blues Adapted by Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Fantagraphics)
From the opening panel until the final words, Tardi's adaptation of Manchette's crime novel Le Petit bleu de la côte ouest sizzles with a dazzling graphic intensity. Salesman George Gerfaut unknowingly becomes embroiled in conspiracy and murder when he stops to aid the victim of a car accident. Much like the 50s American crime novels they emulate, Tardi and Manchette offer a impressive display of destructive violence, wanton love, and disregard for life. Showcasing Tardi's singular artistic talents, the brilliant West Coast Blues emerges as one of the best crime graphic novels ever produced.

You Are There by Jacques Tardi and Jean Claude-Forest (Fantagraphics)
Originally serialized beginning in 1978 for the French magazine À SUIVRE, the groundbreaking You Are There (Ici même) showcased the singular talents of Barbarella creator Claude-Forest and legendary artist Tardi. Presented for the first time in English, this nonsensical farce recounts the struggles of Arthur There and his attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands of Mornemont of which he only owns the walls that subdivide the area. Tardi's intricate, cartoony, and beautiful art perfectly expresses Forest's ideas and words. The humorous You Are There masterfully satirizes French society and politics unlike any comic before or since.

(Mark) Stitches, written and drawn by illustrator David Small (Norton)
The much-lauded Stitches recounts illustrator Small's emotionally austere 60s-era upbringing in Detroit, by a distant doctor dad, and a hostile mom-with-a-secret, in what is his first -- but we can bet, certainly not last -- graphic novel. Small's book operates on a "meta narrative" level as well, where the narrator becomes part of the story itself. Comics are particularly well-suited to this, and Small pulls off this painful recounting (much of literally painful, as he is subjected to unnecessary medical procedures, and the later necessary ones, to counter the earlier ones). Full of haunting touches, which still leads -- despite a slightly rushed ending -- to a kind of redemption.

The Book Of Genesis Asterios Polyp 2. (Rick) The Book Of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton)
In a most unusual and unexpected pairing, legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb illustrates all 50 chapters of Genesis. Rather than a mere adaptation, Crumb literally renders an artistic vision of the entire King James Bible incarnation. Remarkably free of idiomatic dogma, the lavish pictures perfectly complement the text and even manage to make the often boring passages palatable and even interesting. Toss in the commentaries and The Book Of Genesis emerges as not only one of the masterpieces of Crumb's long career but also a sensational, informative, and engaging entertainment for both believers and not.

(Mark) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon Books)
Another example of the variables at work here at NG. Rick was sent a copy -- or was smart enough to request one, and I, evidently, was not. So I wouldn't have read it at all -- and thus, it wouldn't be on my list -- had it not been for my annual summer trip to Austin, where Rick, and his lovely wife Brandy, are kind enough to put up with me slumbering on their guest futon for a few nights. During which, last time out, Rick thrust a copy of this into my hands and insisted I read it. And he was right. Mazzucchelli bursts out of his role as an interesting, moody artist and becomes a first rate storyteller to boot, in this road tale of middle aged angst, and trying to let old ghosts rest while attempting a midlife rebirth. More specifically, it's about an architect who searches for himself by disappearing into other lives, and being around the protagonist's age myself, this particular journey -- which uses the very format of comics, the "architecture" of them -- the images, the white spaces -- as part of the storytelling, was that much more trenchant to me. But I must defer to Entertainment Weekly, (yes!), which may have said it best: "It's as if John Updike had discovered a bag of art supplies and LSD." Run, Rabbit.

Asterios Polyp The Book Of Genesis 1. (Rick) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon Books)
Acclaimed artist David Mazzucchelli (City of Glass, Batman: Year One), who for the past 15 years produced shorter work for various publishers including The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Fantagraphics, and HarperCollins, returns to novel-length work with his first solo book endeavor Asterios Polyp. Mazzucchelli tracks the life of the titular character, a renowned "paper architect" and university professor. Beginning on his fiftieth birthday, this lush non-linear graphic novel follows his surreal life through a failed marriage, dashed hopes, and a bizarre road trip. Even through all this strangeness, the diverse characters of Asterios Polyp ground the book in a semblance of reality. Mazzucchelli masterfully and beautifully manipulates the comic book form to create the best graphic novel of the year.

(Mark) The Book Of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton)
As mentioned in the outset, all year-end list-making is utterly subjective, of course (even if other, non-Nexus Graphica critics pretend otherwise), so the combo of one of my favorite "childhood" cartoonists (my childhood having been lived in Berkeley in the 60s) tackling an epic myth cycle like Genesis -- which I teach each year to 4th graders in my Sunday school-at-a-synagogue gig [you thought this paid all the bills!?] -- was, is, an unbeatable combination. Crumb puts images to deeply layered tales like Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son, Jacob's wrestling with a mysterious "stranger" who bestows a name change on him (to "Israel," in case you were wondering), to the vengeance of Dinah's rape by her sword-wielding brothers. It's all here in its bloody, sweat-soaked, deranged, glory. That people are still arguing about the "meaning" of these legends and lore, up to the present second (including our own "American Taliban") only add to the work's power. Bringing these stories to "empaneled" life is exactly what "comics" are meant to do, and what other media cannot. These pages remain more powerful than any Bible epic Hollywood has yet dreamt up.

And then there are the honorable mentions, in no particular order, and with a mix of Rick picks, Mark picks, and ones we both liked:
Rasl Volume 1: The Drift by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
The Wolverton Bible by Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics)
Blazing Combat edited by Archie Goodwin (Fantagraphics)
Prince Valiant Vol. I: 1937-1938 by Hal Foster (Fantagraphics)
Conan Volume 7: Cimmeria Written by Timothy Truman Art by Tomás Giorello and Richard Corben (Dark Horse)
Trotsky: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary (Hill and Wang)
Pigeons From Hell by Joe R. Lansdale Art by Nathan Fox Based on the story by Robert E. Howard. (Dark Horse)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Top Shelf)
The Surrogates, Vol. 2: Flesh & Bone by Written by Robert Venditti Art by Brett Weldele (Top Shelf)
The Umbrella Academy Volume Two: Dallas Written by Gerard Way Art by Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press)
You'll Never Know by C. Tyler (Fantagraphics)
The Dylan Dog Case Files written by Tiziano Sclavi, with various artists ( Dark Horse)
You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! by Fletcher Hanks (Fantagraphics)

Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams and Rick Klaw

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and thus, shouldn't be surprised at the speed with which a year goes by. He is still hard at work chronicling his own version of the L.A. apocalypse. When not listing, he is also a contributor to entertainment biz trade papers like Variety, Below the Line, and more. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz

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.

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