That Was The Year That Was 2009, Part One
Copyright © 2009 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless
reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications
Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current,
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy,
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