In the Winter of Columns: The Annual Round-Up, Part One
Copyright © 2011 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams
It's that time of year again, folks, which is to say, the part of the year where there's little time left on the
calendar. That means -- well, it means that next time we do this, it'll be on cusp of all the Mayan tumult of
2012! But it also means that it's time for our annual "that was the year that was" best-of round-up.
My own caveat, of course, is there's no pretense that these are, somehow, the objective "best" graphic novels of
the year, to the exclusion of others. They are, simply, the things that Rick and I have read, and written
about here, that affected us most deeply, or stayed with us in some way.
Rick's list may even be a bit more robust than mine; forget the Mayan tumult, long time readers of this column
know it's been a challenging year, emotionally and fiscally, on the Williams side (well, I'm hardly alone in
that these days, eh?) and so I haven't read quite as widely, or as much, as I might have liked.
Additionally, the things sent to me and Rick keep diverging more each year, there were very few things we both
read, though having looked over his list, I pretty much want to read all of it.
That said, there was one exception, which we both got. It starts my list and will be on Rick's list in the next
part (spoiler alert?). I'll tell why, below. But first, Rick's #10:
Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-1954 Edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics)
Arguably one of the most influential comic book artists, Alex Toth deserves mention alongside luminaries
Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Harvey Kurtzman. His works informed the DC house style for better than a
quarter of a century. Though the Simon/Kirby tandem invented the romance comic, Toth's vision stands at the
iconic view of the genre. Setting the Standard collects Toth's entire 62 story output for obscure publisher
Standard Comics. These over 400 pages of crime, horror, romance, science fiction, and war tales showcase
some of his finest works, typifying his mastery of design, graphics, and visual narrative. As he did with
the excellent Four Color Fear and Supermen! tomes, editor Sadowski supplies copious end notes and
annotations. Toss in the reproductions of original Toth pages and Setting the Standard becomes mandatory
reading for any fan of the medium.
MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
The New York Times correctly described this as "a kind of artist's scrapbook, chapbook, photo album and
storage trunk," and that scrapbook is taken out on the occasion of Maus' 25th anniversary, a book that changed
the way the public viewed "comics," and even the way the Holocaust could be "talked about" (including by
Jews!). It's a lovely volume, a printed documentary, and the only reason it's not higher on my list is simply
because I haven't delved into it as thoroughly as Rick has -- who gets to it next time. The sections
where family members are interviewed -- Spiegelman's wife and especially children -- about living with
the legacy of Maus, and how it affected them (especially since Spiegelman isn't a religiously practicing
landsman) were especially fascinating. The question now is whether the disc with the complete Maus "comics"
on them will compel me to reread both volumes of the originals in their entirety. I should; my son recently
borrowed my 25-year-old original (given to me as a gift by my mom) when assigned this now "classic" in high school...
The Sixth Gun Books 1: Cold Dead Fingers and 2:Crossroads Written by Cullen Bunn, Illustrated by Brian Hurtt (Oni)
The second series collaboration from the creators of the excellent supernatural noir thriller The Damned
offers a creepy, magic-infused Western complete with terrifying beasts -- living and undead -- gunfights, and
the occult. Confederate General Oleander Hume seeks out the Sixth Gun, the key to unlocking an unstoppable
power. Mysterious gunslinger Drake Sinclair protects the young Becky Moncrief, current owner of the
powerful Sixth Gun, against Hume, his magically-enhanced henchman and other terrors. Bunn's pitch perfect
script, combined with the unique artistic talents of Hurtt, deliver the finest horrific western since the
best of the Lansdale-Truman stories of the 90s.
The New 52 / All the Stuff I Read Digitally
Okay, this is kind of a cheat, since it's not a single graphic novel or comic, but this is the year
that "digital reading" of comics -- especially of the single issue variety -- really took off, at least for
me! And this was mostly through the offices of my aforementioned Maus-reading eldest son, who only reads
single issues digitally (then gets collections in book form). What this has done is make new issues part
of the household conversation again, since he could tell me (or text me from his mom's house!) about some
new Marvel or DC release, then I could go online and read it. Especially when I was trying to avoid
writing! Thus I discovered overlooked superhero fare like the apocalyptic Old Man Logan (not new, I know)
from Marvel, and I read a handful of DC's New 52 relaunches, which I mostly liked (especially Animal Man
and Demon Knights). Most recently, I read their All-Star Western with Jonah Hex, which is currently set
in Gotham City. Fun, but I think Joe Lansdale needs to write Hex comics, on a long-term basis. But the
old ancient excitement of the "newsstand," long before there were comics speciality shops, was able to
return, just a little.
Infinite Kung Fu by Kagan McLeod (Top Shelf)
McLeod's epic tale successfully apes the martial art films of the 70s while simultaneously delivering a
wholly unique creation. Ruled by a mysterious evil emperor and his five kung fu armies, The Martial World
needs a hero. Enter ex-soldier Yang Lei Kung, latest disciple of The Eight Immortals. Martial arts mayhem
ensues with (literally) flying limbs, zombies, ghosts, traitors, death and an abundance of fun, chaotic
action. Replete with fascinating characters (with the equally interesting names of Moog Joogular,
Bunzo 12, Bald Bo, Windy, Goldy, and Thursday Thoroughgood), mysticism, and bloody violence,
Infinite Kung Fu delivers the real deal as the ultimate martial arts graphic novel.
The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM)
Bombs on Wall Street? Perceived terrorists on the loose? Yup, it all happened 100 years ago when
Italian-born "anarchists" (though their crime may have been merely being Socialists) Ferdinando Sacco and
Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for their presumed involvement in a payroll heist/murder in
Massachusetts. The trial of the pair -- who seemed entirely railroaded (descriptions didn't match,
witnesses who contradicted the prosecution were ignored, the judge specifically said he was going after
the "Reds," etc.) -- became a cause célèbre around the world,and the protests even included bombs going
off on Wall Street. You can just imagine how many fewer of your vanishing Constitutional rights you'd have
left, if such a thing happened now. The B&W art evokes its era simply, and you're left wistful not only
for past injustices, but at the realization of how little, really, anything has changed.
Petrograd Written by Philip Gelatt, Art by Tyler Crook (Oni)
Nearly 100 years after his death, the Russian holy man Grigori Rasputin, intimate advisor to the Tsarina
Alexandra and healer for her son Alexei, remains one of history's more enigmatic and intruging
figures. Petrograd reveals the untold plot behind the Mad Monk's assassination -- political,
social, and romantic. What role did the British consulate play? Which of the bourgeoisie formulated the
plan? How exactly were the Bolsheviks involved? Gelatt's well-crafted script combined with Crook's incredible
draftsmanship produce a realistic and compelling vision of early 20th century, World War I Pertrograd (present
day Saint Petersburg). The excellent, educational, and fascinating Petrograd provides a superior
Empire State by Jason Shiga (Abrams)
I asked for a copy of this graphic novel by Shiga since it was set in Oakland, and I'm an old East Bay boy
myself. Shiga works in a cartoony style that normally isn't my favorite mode for self-reflective memoirs
about love gone, well, not awry -- just not quite there. In the room, when you need it. But I was surprised
at how much I loved this. In part, that's because Shiga gets his Oakland
right: There's Casper's Hot Dogs! There's Children's Fairyland! There are a bunch of old Victorians which
could be right off Telegraph Avenue near MacArthur! Et cetera. But having a definitive sense of place (and
given the book's title, you won't be surprised to learn the action switches to New York, after a fateful
bus trip) isn't the only attribute. It's Shiga's wry/gentle -- and ultimately kind -- way of writing about
his overly-smart characters who can joke about Fermi estimations of vaginas and where the McSweeney's is
placed on their bookshelves, but have a hard time -- like the rest of us -- asking for what they really need.
Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot Adapted by Jacques Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Fantagraphics)
Contract killer Martin Terrier plans on completing one final assassination then retiring to a quiet life
alongside his long lost girlfriend. As these things often go, his employers have a different idea. Reminiscent
of the classic Michael Winner-helmed and Charles Bronson-starred The Mechanic, Tardi's follow up to his
acclaimed adaptation of a Manchette crime novel West Coast Blues, Like A Sniper Lining Up His
Shot (La Position du tireur couché) delivers a superior sequential thriller. Violent, sexy,
and littered with enough shocks to excite the most hardened crime fiction fan, Tardi once again produces
one of the finest examples of the genre.
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani (words) and Leland Myrick (art) (First Second)
A great use of the graphic medium to give us a biography of famed physicist/trickster Richard Feynman. The book
is basically linear, covering Feynman's NY boyhood, his time working on the A-bomb (is that what engendered
his eventual cancer?), though sometimes moves around within sections, if the speaker -- "Feynman," as it
were -- has views of a place, person or incident from different vantage points in life. Given that this is
ostensibly pitched to "younger readers" -- First Second's main audience -- the book is fairly frank about
Feynman's love of the female form (he often did his "office work" in a topless bar near Cal Tech) and his
second thoughts about working at Los Alamos (or at least, following up on that work), to take but two
aspects that may provide interesting moments in school book reports. No mention of his brief use of LSD, but
most of Feynman's adventurousness and merriment -- even in the face of personal loss -- comes through in
the writing, and Myrick's almost New Yorker-like cartooning style. The book even makes a stab at explaining
relativity in the form of the Nobel-winning "Feynman diagrams," which are used, in the art, during the course
of one of the replicated public lectures. I need to re-read this section, cause I only got a teeny bit on
first pass. But it's a work that lends itself to the re-read.
And so the first half of the top ten is in the can, as they used to say, pre-digitally, out Hollywood
way. Rick will be here with the top of the list mid-month, and I will see you in earliest 2012! Have a merry
and a happy, and may things be bountiful for ya. Thanks, as ever, for making this one of your reading pit
stops this past year.
See you in the funny pages.
Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied
countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications
The Austin Chronicle,
The San Antonio Current,
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures
RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations
With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, 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.
He can often be found pontificating on Twitter
and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.
Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series.
Info on what he, or the books, are up to can be found at marklondonwilliams.com.
The first volume, "Ancient Fire," is free on all eBook platforms through the new year.
He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.